Preview: The Lady of the Lake

The story of King Arthur is shrouded with uncertainty but an original production sets the legendary events firmly within the Cumbrian landscape. Stuart Holmes writes

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The Lady of the Lake focuses on the final years of King Arthur’s reign. Old and weary he retires to Carlisle but his decline results in a fierce tussle to fill a power vacuum. The original screenplay is the debut full length work of Benjamin Askew, an actor who has previously performed at The Theatre by the Lake, which has commissioned the new work.

“The development and writing of this play has been a two year journey, but my feelings about the story go back many years,” says Askew, who spent much of his childhood in Cumbria before relocating to London. “When I revisited the area as an actor I had a feeling of connection to it which fired my imagination. I started to think about all of the characters I’d read about when I was younger and formed the ideas within the script.”

Although the true legacy of King Arthur has been much debated by scholars and historians, there are many who claim that the intrepid leader had strong links with the area. Arthur’s father Urther was certainly local, but his adoptive father Ector lived in Wales. Many believe that Excalibur was found and returned to a Cumbrian lake, with Tennyson writing about the King’s final journey while staying near Keswick. King Arthur’s Round Table in Penrith, a Neolithic earthwork henge, is believed to have been his jousting arena. But there are numerous interpretations of all the events emphasising that there will never be a definitive tale.

“I’ve heard all of the debate about whether King Arthur was a real man, what he did and whether or not he lived in Cumbria. I enjoy the contrasting versions of events and find them fascinating,” says the playwright. “I feel there is a shared ownership to stories of legend. Any of us can take them, reinterpret them, and put a whole new spin on what we think they’re about. I think it’s important that this happens if we’re going to continue to retell them.”

As such, Askew opted to combine his lifelong fascination with the story of King Arthur with his Cumbrian roots and write a script that honoured both the legend and the location. This allowed him artistic license to write the scenes he would like to believe were true.

“I didn’t feel an obligation to attempt being historically accurate because this will always be contested. Instead, I focused on the story,” he says. “This meant that anything I was imagining could occur, such as using the nearby valley of Borrowdale as the famous Isle of Avalon. There are various references to the area which make it into the play because they are meaningful to me.”

With a backdrop as breathtaking as that surrounding the theatre, the audience will be engrossed in the Arthurian realm before the performance has even begun.

“In setting events locally, I wanted to let the landscape play its own role in the story,” says Askew, who was delighted to have his first play staged a short stroll from Derwentwater. “I hope that by doing so, spectators will be able to have fun with their imagination. As they’re watching events unfold on stage they’ll be able to picture the characters amongst the fells and lakes of Cumbria.”

The Lady of the Lake is at The Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 6 Nov

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