Lincoln Center Theater’s delightful and, yes, congenial, new production of Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot” is notable for offering a fresh take on the classic musical. With a snappy new book by Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin and direction by LCT Resident Director Bartlett Sher, it stars an appealing young cast including Andrew Burnap as an idealistic, Kennedy-esque King Arthur, Phillipa Soo as the French-born Queen Guenevere, and Jordan Donica as the charismatic and irresistible knight, Lancelot. Starring alongside this youthful trio is Dakin Matthews, a veteran of the stage and screen, in the pivotal roles of Merlin and Sir Pellinore.
Matthews has more than 250 television credits and has appeared in more than 25 feature films, but he is widely known as one of the country’s most sought-after stage actors. His recent memorable Broadway roles include: Richard Russell (alongside Bryan Cranston) in the LBJ play, “All The Way,” Mickey in the Broadway production of “Rocky the Musical,” Winston Churchill opposite Helen Mirren in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” Joe opposite Sarah Bereilles in “Waitress,” and Judge Taylor in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
His prolific career also includes stints as Artistic Director of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, the California Actors Theatre and The Antaeus Theatre Company (which he co-founded). He serves as an Associate Artist of the Old Globe Theatre and is a founding member of The Acting Company and Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project. He is also a playwright, director, translator, and theatrical scholar. He has served as a dramaturg on numerous high-profile theatrical productions, including the 2005 Broadway revival of “Julius Caesar” starring Denzel Washington and a 2013 production of “Macbeth” directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Ethan Hawke.
Dakin took time out from his busy schedule to chat with us about his career and his experience on this new version of “Camelot.”
You’ve had such an incredible career acting both on screen in TV, film and on stage in the theatre, as well as narrating audiobooks. Is there one of these that you enjoy more or that you are more passionate about?
I am mostly passionate about theatre, both because of the live experience of creating in the same room with the audience, and because of the long history of theatre and the value of its classics. Also, I think my particular talents are best employed in live theatre performance.
You began your career training as Catholic priest and then turned to acting. What were the circumstances that prompted this change in your life? Was there a particular point in your life where you realized that you had made the right decision?
The decision was a personal one. I started my studies for the priesthood at a very young age, as was the custom, and after more than a decade of preparation, I realized, much to my own surprise and after a year of what the Jesuits call discernment, that it was not the life I wanted to lead. I made the right choice.
In addition to an impressive body of work in plays, particularly classics, you’ve also acted in musicals – as the iconic Mickey in Rocky, as Joe in Waitress, and of course, in your current role as Merlin/Pellinore in Camelot. It’s rare for an actor who is known for plays to cross over into musicals. What has that experience been like for you? From an actor’s perspective what are the main differences or challenges with musicals versus straight plays?
I have come seriously to musicals relatively late in my career, though every actor does his share of musicals throughout his acting life. The crossover has been exciting and rewarding for me, both financially and personally, because it has kept me feeling both young and humble, being in the company of so many multi-talented, dedicated, disciplined young actors. And every once in a while, they let me sing.
This production of Camelot is very unique in that it has a new book by Aaron Sorkin. What were the major changes he made?
Aaron himself has characterized his contribution (unluckily) as “taking out the magic.” In fact, it is what he has added that makes the major difference: a strong role for Guenevere as a proto-feminist, but more importantly, a serious consideration of how a country governs itself as it moves beyond outdated systems of divine-right monarchy and absolutism and towards self-determination and respect for the dignity of the individual. It’s a heavy burden to lay on an essentially musical comedy form, but he does it with a light touch that seems to please the audiences.
Did you know when you accepted the part that Merlin would not have magical abilities? How did that change your work on the character?
I didn’t specifically know that, but after the first workshop, it became clear that I would have to model my Merlin not on a magician, but a tough teacher. (So, I sort of chose John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield as my model.)
In particular, the cast seems very fresh and young than in prior productions. Can you talk about that and how it affects the production and your character?
Arthur’s youth and innocence are foregrounded in this production, as are Guenevere’s feistiness and Lancelot’s immaturity. One would never accuse either Burton or Richard Harris of portraying naivete in their Arthurs. I think that has helped the production embody Aaron’s goal of reshaping the story into one of discovery and disappointment and re-dedication to one’s ideals.
Much has been written about this version of Camelot and how it speaks to modern politics and our particular place in time. Can you explain why?
Well, we’re currently battling with something very similar, aren’t we—a wished-for return to a kind of faux-religious nationalism, which turns out to be the enemy of democracy and the breeding ground for autocracy. The inevitable disappointments with the difficulties of maintaining a truly just society should never be allowed to lull us into a dangerous nostalgia for an autocratic way of governing that was never just and ultimately even more disappointing, except for the privileged.
You were recently recognized by The Acting Company with the John Houseman Award for your body of work. Tell us about the meaning of that award.
I took that as a tribute to my dedication to the stage and to the concept of acting companies—that is, ensembles of artists that create multiple pieces together over longer stretches of time, just the way all the other performing arts do it. You don’t have pick-up symphony orchestras, or pick-up opera or ballet companies. Creating a family of artists who produce a body of work has always been, in my opinion, the best way to do theatre; it’s how I did it early in my career and what i have espoused throughout my career—even though it’s rarely done any more.
“Camelot” plays at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre through September 3rd, 2023. Tickets at Telecharge.com.
Danny Wolohan, Anthony Michael Lopez, Fergie Philippe, and Dakin Matthews in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of CAMELOT. Photo by Joan Marcus.