Charles Huddleston, Charles Huddleston’s Avalon, Edinburgh Fringe, Fathom Five, King Arthur, Michele Martin, Natalie Wood, Paradise in the Vault, Sean Cronin, Stage Reading, Staged Reading, Theatre Review
I have led such an innocent life that I have never seen a dead body or the stage reading of a play before. Now, after experiencing Fathom Five’s “Avalon” at Paradise in the Vault, only the corpse remains.
I have reviewed hundreds of plays at the Edinburgh Fringe but never a stage reading (or, alternatively, a staged reading). What is one exactly? Perhaps there is a similar uncertainty as you find concerning the moral status of autism. Is a stage reading a valid condition in itself or is a handicap, a condition that nobody would choose if there was a choice? Maybe Fathom Five’s actors have memorised the play but they have to pretend to read it because this is how things are done at a stage reading. “Avalon” is openly a stage reading, with the scripts placed on cumbersome stands between the show and the audience. I imagine that, if it was the case that the actors didn’t know their lines, there would be less obtrusive methods of organising this event. A projector could beam the script on to a discreet patch of floor. Or it could be screened on one of these smartwatch devices, so that it looks merely as if the actors are checking the time a lot.
The script is written by Charles Huddleston. Years after her drowning in 1981, Natalie Wood (Michele Martin) washes up near to the town of Avalon on California’s Santa Catalina Island. Here she meets King Arthur (Sean Cronin), who is being held in an enchanted exile. Neither of them will blink first – Natalie Wood remains Natalie Wood and King Arthur sticks obstinately to being King Arthur. It is rather like a meeting in the common room of a lunatic asylum between two residents.
The performances never really get going, but this is largely because the actors have to stay handcuffed to the script stands. Martin is woebegone and full of vim, like a caged songbird who wants to be free to flutter all around the stage. Cronin’s velvety voice is too often on tiptoe, and yet there are moments when it jumps powerfully up and down. It is like he is getting into the spirit of the reading by channeling all of his energy into his voice. Cronin might look as if he is auditioning for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Fathom Five take their name from a line from The Tempest), but his cursed character actually most resembles Caliban.
It might sound like I am describing two workplace acquaintances, but Natalie Wood and King Arthur make a nice couple. There is soon a personable, affectionate romance between them. This is ultimately, however, why “Avalon” might as well be a stage reading and leave it at that. The sole justification for the play’s absurdist starting-point is that Wood had died near to a town that was named Avalon. Although there is no hope that such an extraordinary premise can be quietly ditched, the play somehow manages to do so. It is always strangely uninterested in gaining any radical or worthwhile humour from juxtaposing Wood and Arthur, instead opting to beat through the margins of the surrealism in search of a conventional romance. The idea that Wood might be the Lady of the Lake does nothing to wrap the play up because there is an insufficient commitment to the analogy from the beginning.
Still, at least Wood did not die on the outskirts of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, otherwise who knows what we would now be watching.