David Bintleyís Arthur Part 1 came to Covent Garden under a cloud of somewhat unflattering reviews, and the audience looked somewhat thin there on its opening night. This is a pity: is not Bintleyís best work, and it tries to take on far too much in narrative terms. But it is an extremely ambitious work, and even though it doesnít live up to the aims it sets itself, the scale of the enterprise and Bintleyís determination to tackle epic themes deserve our respect. And it does contain some fine performances from the company.
The Arthurian legends, on the face of it, do seem a reasonable basis for the subject matter of a narrative ballet. There are episodes there - Guinevere and Lancelotís adulterous passion, guilt and concealment - that it is easy to imagine expressed in dance terms. But this is just one aspect of Arthuriana, albeit the one probably best known. But Bintley is interested in much more than an illicit love affair: as in Edward II, (though not with the same success), he in interested in kingship and power, its responsibilities and the moral effects it has on those who wield it. Arthur is born as the result of his father, King Uther Pendragonís abuse of his power to gain Ygraine, married to another. Although Arthur appears to be the bright and unstained warrior, in fact he is already caught in the toils of power: he is seduced, unknowingly by his half sister Morgan le Fay, who wishes to conceive a child by him as an act of revenge for her fatherís murder by his. This child is destined to destroy him, and Arthur is convinced by Merlin to order the destruction of young children on the day of his wedding to Guinevere, who has already fallen for his closest friend Lancelot.
The trouble with this argument is that, in general, it reads better than it dances. The subject is much better suited to the sprawling form of the epic poem or novel than it is to the stage. The first act is very episodic in nature: we see Utherís attraction to and eventual seduction of Ygraine, and the birth of Arthur: but then there is a leap forward in time to Arthurís coming of age and retrieval of the sword from the stone which marks him out as the rightful king. Until Arthur arrives on stage (an impressive performance from Parker), there is no one character to focus on and to sustain the audienceís interest and sympathy. Most successful ballet narratives play out almost in real time before us, and their impact is bound up with the immediacy of the event - we see Giselle or Julietís predicament as it happens in the moment. Shifts of time between scenes are never very easy to convey - long perspectives are much easier to deal with in prose.
The other difficulty is that the narrative is not sufficiently propelled forward by the dance alone, and the first of the two acts feels like a very long prologue to the real action. Things improved markedly in this respect in the second half: the seduction of the young, rather bashful Arthur - a virtual rape - by the icily dominant Morgan (Leticia Muller) is scarily, strikingly effective and trusts to dance to get its point across. Similarly, the initial attraction between Guinevere (Zamora) and Lancelot (Murphy) is well done, but at this point our acquaintance with Lancelot is not really sufficient to make us care enough about him or the fate of the lovers. We have seen just too many characters in too short a time to feel fully involved.
It is undeniably a remarkable visual spectacle, as you would expect from these collaborators. The simple set (Davison) is endlessly adaptable and the lighting (Peter Mumford) is excellent. Jasper Conran has provided some hats even madder than those in Edward II, which I didnít think was possible. But all this, and the excellent performances from Robert Parker, David Justin, Leticia Muller, and Monica Zamora canít ultimately make the spectacle as involving and enthralling as it ought to be. Only fitfully, in Muller and Parkerís erotic confrontation, do you feel real involvement and a sense of danger, of decisions made which will have terrible consequences.
There has been time since its original opening last year for Bintley to make some adjustments: how much he has done, Iím uncertain (at least one scene in the lengthy scenario in the programme seemed to be omitted). Despite all this, Iím still keen to see Arthur Part 2: if Bintley can concentrate on the central character and his ultimate downfall, in a less cluttered narrative he may be able to fulfil more of his ambitions.