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King Arthur's Night transforms a legend through 'lateral imagination'

PuSh fest playwright, protagonist Niall McNeil dishes on his latest collaboration—including a 16-piece choir, upstart goat army, and cast of fellow actors with Down syndrome

Actor and playwright Niall McNeil (front left) performs as King Arthur alongside Tiffany King playing Guinevere in a dress rehearsal for his second play co-written with Siminovitch Prize-winning Marcus Youssef, King Arthur’s Night.

Courtesy Andrew Alexander/Neworld Theatre

Actor and playwright Niall McNeil (front left) performs as King Arthur alongside Tiffany King playing Guinevere in a dress rehearsal for his second play co-written with Siminovitch Prize-winning Marcus Youssef, King Arthur’s Night.

Forget everything you remember of Disney's Sword in the Stone — the orphan hero "Wart," magic dancing dishes, laughing owls.

Instead, picture the legend of King Arthur "made fresh for our eyes," where lovers give birth to an upstart goat, a 16-piece choir accompanies phone-recorded melodies, and the cast features actors with Down syndrome.

King Arthur's Night comes from what Neworld Theatre calls the "lateral imagination" of playwright and actor Niall McNeil and Neworld's Marcus Youssef.

Part of PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, it's the pair's second collaboration after Peter Panties, and is scored by Veda Hille. Recent Siminovitch prize-winner Youssef plays Merlin, McNeil the protagonist.

"I'm playing King Arthur of Camelot," McNeil said in a phone interview Wednesday during technical rehearsals. "There's an army of goats in the play, trying to get me out of my throne and get my kingdom, but I'm too powerful.

"I really liked creating this ensemble … The play in action is perfect."

Youssef interjects to explain McNeil's "goat army," only to be teased as a "chatterbox." ("He calls me that," Youssef joked, "because I never stop talking.").

Growing up involved in Armstrong, B.C.'s Caravan Farm Theatre, McNeil recalls being attacked by an ornery goat in what was dubbed the farm's "goat palace."

"He was really grumpy and old," he said. "I was about five, and the goat got angry about something and kept on using his head to butt me out of his palace.

"Although I saw other kids were running around, that goat was chasing and attacking me."

In hindsight, the goat earned not only some sympathy from McNeil — "He wasn't that mean, just a little grumpy" — but also a leading part his play.

"They can lose their heads and fight … But I end up winning the war."

An acting instructor at the Down Syndrome Research Foundation's Act Up program, McNeil taught other cast members.

"I've been learning a lot from them too," he said. "I really want to teach more Down syndrome people how to be actors and actresses."

Youssef agreed, saying the production's his "most profound learning experience" in theatre.

"I've learned what some people are capable of that I had not even imagined," he said. "People with Down syndrome seem to be have an incredible presence on stage — being in the present moment and not self-conscious at all, just committing to what's happening.

"It's a skill professional actors work hard to develop."

After King Arthur's Night, McNeil hopes to adapt Beauty and the Beast and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"I will keep writing 'til I don't want to write anymore."

King Arthur’s Night runs 7:30 p.m. daily Jan. 31-Feb. 3 at PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, plus a 'relaxed' matinee Feb. 4. Tickets $39 online.

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