British Columbia

King Arthur legend re-imagined by writer, actors with Down syndrome

The tale of King Arthur and the Holy Grail has been told for hundreds of years, but perhaps never in as radically inclusive a way as in NeWorld Theatre's adaptation.

'King Arthur's Night' is currently playing at Vancouver's PuSh Festival

Niall McNeil stars as King Arthur in the play. (Tristan Casey)

The tale of King Arthur and the Holy Grail has been told for hundreds of years, but perhaps never in as radically inclusive a way as in NeWorld Theatre's adaptation.  

One of the writers and several of the actors in the acclaimed King Arthur's Night have Down syndrome.

"[It's] told by actors who have very, very different kinds of cognitive perspectives or experiences," said Marcus Youssef, co-writer of the play.

That informs the way the story is told, he told CBC's Margaret Gallagher, from the poetic language and bold projections to the addition of unusual characters, like a herd of goats.

Writing together

King Arthur's Night is the second production Youssef has collaborated on with Niall McNeil, who co-wrote it and stars as King Arthur.

McNeil is one member of the cast with Down syndrome.

The pair began working together in 2009 for Peter Panties, an unconventional adaptation of Peter Pan.

"When I first started with Marcus, he didn't know what my ability [was]. I know he cares a lot about Down syndrome," McNeil said.

Working with McNeil has been a learning process, Youssef said.

"Niall and I had to figure out how to write together in terms of our physical ability to write," Youssef said. "We had to devise or figure out a process that allowed Niall's vision for first Peter Pan and now King Arthur to come to life."

They started out meeting for improvisations, which Youssef recorded and transcribed to shape into a script.

Many of the scenes in the play, like the ones between King Arthur and his wife Guinevere, are partially improvised.  

"Every night, the scene adheres to a structure but they are improvising and they are present doing their thing for real in the moment. It's extraordinary," Youssef said.

King Arthur's Night is part of Vancouver's PuSh Festival. It runs from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4 at the Frederic Wood Theatre.  

To hear more, click on the audio below:

With files from Margaret Gallagher and The Early Edition

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