Musical messages, with liberal dashes of pomp, by way of ‘Camelot’

Despite coming from the “wrong” side of the British Channel, Amsallem is well and truly in the Python camp.

Displaying an admirable amount of backbone: King Arthur (Brett Goldman) surveys his kingdom (photo credit: AVITAL COHEN)
Displaying an admirable amount of backbone: King Arthur (Brett Goldman) surveys his kingdom
(photo credit: AVITAL COHEN)
The forthcoming production of Camelot, by the veteran Beersheba-based Light Opera Group of the Negev (LOGON), has a lot going for it. The theatrical broth incorporates an intricate web of deceit, liberally seasoned with romantic interest from every which way – heroism, altruism, skullduggery and not a little pomp.
That should be enough to keep audiences in Beersheba, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Modi’in, Rehovot, Haifa and Jerusalem suitably entertained between March 3 and March 31.
French-born director Yaakov Amsallem says he knew he’d have plenty to sink his teeth into when the decision to put on Camelot was made.
“This is a play that chock full of stuff, with different styles and elements. It’s a sort of tragicomedy. It is written with a lot of humor, and there is parody in the story of King Arthur, too, but it is a very tragic, classic, tale with a love triangle and, basically, everything you can expect to find a good soap opera,” he observes with a laugh.
Camelot began life back in 1960 as an adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe of a book about the Arthurian legend by T. H. White. The original production, a smash hit, ran on Broadway for 873 performances, winning four Tony Awards. The original cast album was America’s top-selling LP for 60 weeks.
For Brits in a certain age group, or fans of singular British humor created by a bunch of Oxbridge graduates, the story of King Arthur will forever be associated with the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Despite coming from the “wrong” side of the British Channel, Amsallem is well and truly in the Python camp.
“We didn’t have a need for coconut halves, but we don’t have any horses on stage either,” the director chuckles, referring to the tongue-in-cheek method used in the film to imitate the clip clop sound of horses’ hooves.
Amsallem notes that John Cleese et al. introduced him to the British funny bone, albeit with some linguistic challenges.
“I remember when The Holy Grail came over to France it was quite an event, because there was no French translation. My friends and I didn’t know much English at the time.”
Presumably, then, the Pythons helped to improve Amsallem’s command of English.
“To tell you the truth, what really helps with my English is working with LOGON,” he laughs. “I speak to the cast in English, and then someone else takes what I say and ‘translates’ that into [proper] English.”
Other than Monty Python, what drew Amsallem to a tale of yore from the Sceptered Isle? “As someone who comes from France, medieval times are sort of built in, part of my DNA,” he says.
“Anything to do with the Middle Ages is deeply rooted in France, including the history of the wars with England. And the whole business of knights. That was an important part of my childhood games. We didn’t play cowboys because that was American, and there were no laser guns and Star Wars stuff back then.”
All of which makes Camelot a perfectly natural directorial vehicle for Amsallem.
“Yes, and there are just so many markers in the play.”
And we’re not just talking about rib ticklers here. “The work has a lot of critical commentary about leadership, and what it takes to be a true leader.”
Indeed it does. Unlike the politicians of the day, when the time nears for Arthur to take on the mantle of power, rather than rubbing his hands with glee, the young man prefers to commune with nature, and also balks at the idea of wedding the beautiful Lady Guinevere.
Of course, he eventually goes through with both assignments, and things seem to working out for the best. The newlyweds turn out to be a delightful harmonious couple, and Arthur instigates various innovative sociopolitical mechanisms designed to ensure as much equality and a fair crack of the whip for all and sundry.
One of the king’s revolutionary acts is to create the fabled Round Table and its illustrious knights in shining armor, the idea being to create a new breed of nobleman, one that does that does not flex his muscle and sword, but rather does his utmost to promote concepts of justice and respect. Guinevere is totally on board for the meritorious initiative, and all appears to be well in Arthurian England – that is until a certain Gallic character by the name of Lancelot pops over the Channel and drives a spoke unerringly through the king’s wheel.
In addition to the enchanting fable, Amsallem feels there are some important, and highly contemporary, lessons interwoven into the fabric of the legend, which we would do well to take on board.
“Today, in particular, because of everything that is happening in the world, politics is very aggressive, it is amazing to see Arthur deliberating over such important issues.
I think this play is a lesson in genuine leadership.”
Arthur indeed displays an admirable amount of backbone, even to the point of allowing his beloved Guinevere to go off with Lancelot, a man who did much to undermine Arthur’s position as ruler, as well as breaking up his marriage. That is magnanimity in the extreme.
“He says he can’t harm either of them because he loves both of them. He is not even judgmental,” notes Amsallem.
“He doesn’t even ponder whether or not to forgive Lancelot. I think there is a revolutionary point here.”
Indeed, it is hard to think of any politician in the world today who would be willing to allow a usurper to get off scot free. Today politics is largely about posturing, ego and hanging on to the seat of power for dear life.
That all sounds a bit heavy for a play that is supposed to offer the audiences a good time. “That’s true,” the director admits. “That’s why I have to keep on reminding the actors that this is a comedy.” It is also a highly personal tale.
“I think that the greatness of the virtuosity of the writing lies in the fact that they manage to talk about leadership, and really important issues, on the micro level, through a portrayal of Arthur’s love. That makes it a very human story.”
Naturally, there are lots of elements in the show to keep the eyes and ears happy. There is color galore, and the play is shot through with catchy and stirring musical numbers.
“Medieval times lend themselves to banners and flags and those sorts of aesthetic elements,” says Amsallem.
“That involves the use of a lot of material, which is good because it is not too hefty. With all that color you don’t want to end up with a heavy set.”
This is a large-scale production with a cast of 38, with the soundtrack provided by 11 musicians playing live, as well as playbacks. With all the sensory stimulants, intricate storyline and the aforementioned valuable messages, LOGON’s upcoming proffering sounds like a delight for the eyes, ears, heart and brain.
“I hope the members of the audience will go home with a smile but also with food for thought,” says Amsallem.
Take in Camelot in Jerusalem on March 6. For tickets and more information about performances in other cities around the country: (08) 641-4081, and