Preview: Merlin And The Legend of King Arthur

Joe Sumsion of Dukes Lancaster Theatre tells Mia Vigar why there’s magic in the outdoors

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This summer the Dukes celebrates a magical 25 years of its walkabout theatre events in the stunning Williamson’s Park with a brand new take on an epic tale – Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur.

“It feels like the production has grown out of the park, the trees and bushes,” says director Joe Sumsion. “In the older tellings of the legend, Arthur and Merlin seem of the land. Merlin is almost depicted as a tree, and Arthur isn’t just King of England, he is the land itself.”

Specialists in walkabout theatre, the pioneering company has built up a reputation for providing some of the most exciting outdoor experiences in British theatre.

“Experiential theatre is nearly always indoors but we do it differently as our audiences are so big – the maximum is 550. This kind of theatre only began in the 1980s and the Dukes pioneered it. You’re part of an exciting adventure. In this show the audience will feel like the people of England.”

The audience will follow the action, provided by a cast of eight, and penned by award-winning playwright and the Dukes associate artist Kevin Dyer. “He’s very good at working out how the audience can engage without it being cheap or pantomime,” says Sumison.

“Locations are explored as the characters discover Camelot. Fenham Carr is separated and entirely natural – normally just dog walkers go there. What’s new is that the piece has been written specifically for Williamson’s Park so it will never have been done before.”

Though Sumison understatedly refers to the experience as “an enhanced walk in a beautiful place”, it’s clear there is something innately enchanted about the forging together of nature and magic.

“There are wooded areas, a lake – a key part of the story, of course, is the Lady of the Lake. Part of what makes the shows in the park successful is the spectacle of it. You can make different worlds that correspond to the settings. Lots of the story is about the making of England and the making of society.”

It’s unusual for a play to be sewn together with its environment so organically. In case you are already rubbing the soles of your feet in anticipation of a long stroll, Sumison explains: “People do sit down in most areas. People can bring picnics.”

It might however be worth checking the weather forecast for what attire to sport in order to get the most out of the experience.

“The weather doesn’t affect the experience as much as you would think. When buying a ticket you are investing in it, and our job is to make sure a fantastic time is had. Our attitude is, if you see a puddle, jump in it. A bit of rain brings the actors and the audience closer together – everyone comes through it. You’ll be exposed to stunning views over Morecambe Bay.”

Though it’s outdoors, all areas have sound systems and the performers wear radio mics.
“There is a dramatic scene in the woods – naked flames, stunning trees, light and shadows,” says the director. “Most magicians need to be in a black box but this will be an older type of magic than that. We’re inspired by the ancientness of the story so it will feel very old. The designer’s take isn’t historically accurate – it’s a historic plus fantastical modern-day approach. The music is epic, earthy, and beautiful.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that to many people our performances are not just a memorable moment in theatre but also in their lives. We work hard to make sure it works for three generations of a family – outside West End theatre there aren’t many companies doing that. People will remember the experience for many years to come. I can’t wait to see Merlin control the world.”

Merlin And The Legend of King Arthur, 8 July-13 August, Williamson Park, Lancaster

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