Big ideas and the clout to carry them through have been conspicuously lacking in British ballet in recent years. David Bintley's Edward II was a major exception, a work he made before taking on the directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1995, but which suited BRB's developing breed of actor-dancers down to the ground. Edward's success - a great sweep of bloody English history which took its narrative structure from Marlowe's play - paved the way for Arthur, Parts I and II, a more ambitious project, not just because of its two-evening duration (a world first, I believe), and the way it pitches itself as a grand millennial overview, but because of its more or less original scenario. No one could say Mallory's Morte d'Arthur leaps from page to stage, and the sheer clarity of Bintley's storytelling is remarkable.
The complex details of Arthur's dodgy provenance (mother tricked into sex with a rapist, a wizard as guardian, an incest-bent sorceress for a sister) are relayed with the pace of an action film. The sword in the stone episode is grippingly and movingly told. It is barely necessary to know the names of the characters, let alone read the synopsis, to follow every nuance of plot. Of how many evenings in the theatre can you say that?
But Arthurian legend offers more than a Boys' Own yarn, and Bintley almost comes unstuck trying to embrace too many of its potent themes. On the one hand there's the story of the boy who would be king and learns hard lessons in peace-keeping and compromise. There's the druidic vendetta of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay. And there's the high-flown romance of Lancelot and Guinevere - almost a novella in itself, and the story Bintley is least equipped to rewrite in dance. Romantic pas de deux is not this choreographer's forte. His attempts to make steps that express straightforward sexual desire are conventional and dull, and the too- numerous duets between Monica Zamora's wide-eyed innocent and Andrew Murphy's drippy knight dampen both evenings. I began to wonder if the dancers were at fault - the spark generated between them wouldn't ignite a votive candle - but really, how could poor Lancelot be expected to cut a manly figure when his first entrance is in fancy dress as a unicorn? …