“Beagon’s careful and respectful adaptation of Sword at Sunset far excels the 2011 movie version of The Eagle of the Ninth.”
The problem with British history in the late Roman/early medieval period, according to Robert Graves at any rate, is that unlike the Byzantine east – where written sources document the doings of Justinian, Theodora and Count Belisarius – all there is in Britain is Arthurian myth. This hasn’t stopped the intervening generations filling their libraries, galleries and film sets with countless depictions of King Arthur and his Cnutish fight to hold back the sea of invading despoilers bent on snuffing out the flickering light of civilization.
Sword at Sunset, based on the best-selling 1963 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, chronicles the career of Artos from his service as a cavalry commander under his uncle, the British high king Ambrosius, through to his donning of the imperial purple as a later-day Caesar. Incorporating Artos’ seduction by his vengeful half-sister Ygerna; his strategic marriage to Guenhumara; his friendships; his battles; successes and failures, James Beagon’s adaptation would be a very tall order for any company.
Thus there is a kind of symmetry between the weight of expectations placed on Artos and upon Jacob Close who plays him. There are times when it seems that he has been hopelessly miscast, lost in a cacophony of happenings far beyond his control. Then again there are moments of magnetic dynamism which truly lift the spirit – the same can be said of Close’s bold on stage brushstrokes. It’s a heroic performance worthy of the legend.
Not everybody would leave a 3 and a half hour theatrical epic (sans budget) wanting more, but I did. I wanted more of Sophie Craik’s Celtic mysticism as Ygerna and more of the chemistry between Guenhumara (Miriam Wright) and Bedwyr (Adam Butler). Each thread was worthy of a tapestry in its own right, deserved the directorial attention and creative design of a separate staging. As it was the results felt foreshortened.
I’d like to see this script produced as a radio series. Historical novels often struggle to be adapted for the screen or stage. On television I, Claudius is only marginally better than the best forgotten The Cleopatras of a similar vintage. The surviving clips of the intended 1937 Hollywood feature starring Charles Laughton suggest that all trace of Graves’ original subtly would have been lost there too. The selective focus of the 1988 TV mini-series of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln means it is better than average but, as the 2012 Spielberg myopic (sic) demonstrates, the bar is not very high.
Of the two or three weddings I have been forcibly removed from, the most memorable was in Lewes. “How can you say you don’t like Rosemary Sutcliff?” I angrily demanded of the classicist groom, “You’re getting married in the very Sussex Downs that fired her imagination.” The desk sergeant who brought me morning tea in the cells agreed. Even more so than either Graves or Vidal, Sutcliff’s novels are about time, place and above all atmosphere.
In this paramount aspect Beagon’s careful and respectful adaptation of Sword at Sunset far excels the 2011 movie version of The Eagle of the Ninth. I’d very much like to see him presented with the $25m that went into the film if only to further demonstrate my hypothesis that the best adaptations stick closest to the novelist’s intentions. Compare the ludicrously off-piste take of that late-’90s Hornblower TV series with the shipshape Master and Commander of 2003 and you’ll get what I’m driving at.
As is to be expected with an earnest student production biting off far more than it can chew there are plenty of notes: Bedwyr needs to love his harp and never let it go; if the symbolism of the imperial cloak isn’t to be lost then no other character should wear purple; and while the large wooden broadswords add to the overall sense of unwieldy bulk, they do get rather in the way.
But there is also some really classy individual and team work on offer here: the sword fights are fluid, with a bit more umph they might even be swashbuckling; the smoky hearth effect centre stage is ingenious; and the use of twin exits and entrances for inside and out adds much needed pace, although these occasionally get rather clogged with actors moving props about.
As the drawn out evening draws to a close I am pleased to have got what I came for, a strong adaptation robustly performed by a company unafraid to reach for the unobtainable.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 26 February)
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