Dakin Matthews, who portrays Merlyn and Pellinore in Camelot, calls himself a traditionalist, so let me affix to him a traditional appellation: man of the theater. What other description can do justice to someone who has taught Renaissance drama, translated dozens of texts, acted in 200 plays and even more television shows, founded classical-theater companies, engaged in Shakespeare scholarship, and still, at 83, is eight-shows-a-week fit?
In a single interview I couldn’t possibly cover the scope of Matthews’ career so I whittled down our topics to Shakespeare, the communal nature of theater, and, of course, his two Camelot characters.
“The most important thing,” Matthews said, “was to differentiate Pellinore and Merlyn, who is an archetypal shape-shifter. Otherwise, audiences would think that Pellinore was Merlyn come back. I didn’t want that.” The differentiation was a challenge. “Because I have facial hair, I can’t be very protean. So I decided very early in the process that I would use two vocalities. Merlyn would sound mid-Atlantic. But Pellinore is written so British that you have to honor that.”
Other aspects of Matthews’ interpretations: “Merlyn has authority, so I use few gestures and never raise my voice. He’s sarcastic.” He continued: “I pitched Pellinore’s voice much higher. He used to have standing and strength, but they have decayed.” As for physical movement: “Merlyn walks only in straight lines – you never see his feet. Pellinore is constantly moving in circles – his feet are never quite stable.”
Firmer than Pellinore’s feet is Matthews’ commentary on Camelot and his characters in terms of the Bard. “There is an apocryphal Shakespeare play,” he said, “called The Birth of Merlin.” (The play was attributed to Shakespeare and William Rowley, but most scholars now believe that the play is Rowley’s.) “And of course Merlyn is mentioned in King Lear, by the Fool.”
I asked Matthews about Merlyn as a mentor to Arthur, especially with regard to Henry IV, a play, by the way, in which Matthews appeared at LCT, in a memorable 2003 production. “In Henry IV, we see Prince Hal being mentored by his father and by Falstaff. He is shown how to be cunning but not too cunning, courageous but not too courageous.” Matthews added: “But in Camelot we don’t see much mentoring from Merlyn. We see the tail end of him.” And Pellinore, according to Matthews, “is not a mentor. He is like Kent and the Fool in King Lear: what they offer the king is loyalty – what Shakespeare calls ‘good service.’ That involves serving the master’s best interest, which doesn’t mean always doing what the master says.”
If Pellinore is fueled by loyalty, I wondered what, given Matthews’ rich and varied career, continues to fuel the actor’s infectious enthusiasm for day-to-day life.
“Love of learning, for one thing,” he responded. “Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve been translating texts, many of them great Spanish plays, with great stories, that have lacked a stageworthy version in English. Stories are unmatched at conveying meaning.” Referencing the writer of Camelot’s new book, Matthews continued: “Aaron Sorkin has aptly said that no one has ever invented a better delivery system for ideas than narrative.”
Matthews’ other prime motivator is the experience of live performance. “Originally, I didn’t plan to have anything to do with acting,” he explained. “I was a university professor. But I had the opportunity to act in Shakespeare in a summer production, and I thought that experience would give me insight into his work. And what I found, and what still drives me to this day, is the belief that stories heard by an audience at the same time they are being told -- live theater, in other words – offer a communal experience that nothing else does.”
And what of technology’s impact on the number of people who want to hear their stories live? “I can’t predict the future,” Matthews said, “but I can say that, with technological advancements, movies and TV can now do tremendous deep-fake work. Soon, we’ll have films with no actors, only faces and voices. If he’s not careful, Brad Pitt could star in a movie that he’s never made.”
Matthews said that this is less likely to happen in the theater: “In Camelot, there’s a legal limit to the snow. And there’s a limit to the technology: we use it, but in the end it can’t get us. I think King Arthur would approve.”
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.