Interview: Ross Stephenson on Artorigus at Edinburgh Fringe

by Chris Dobson

Artorigus’ Kingdom is in danger. His once tight grasp on his beloved realm is slipping through the gaps in his fingers. He is surrounded from all sides by his shadowy past. Can his loyal knights be trusted? Is his wife hiding a terrible secret? Even Artorigus’ own son, Medraut plots to overthrow him. Can he keep his rule intact? Based on the legends of old and inspired by the classical lyricism of Shakespeare. This modern adaptation of King Arthur blends prose with verse to create a unique look into the themes of stagnation, idleness, betrayal and love.

The Understudy sat down with writer and actor Ross Stephenson to discuss his new play Artorigus, which is on at theSpace @ Niddy Street until 27 August.

With over 3000 shows to choose from at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, why should festivalgoers see Artorigus?

If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur, the classical style of Shakespearean language and modern poetry, this might be up your alley. We also have sea shanties, sword fights and sonnets to spice things up! If you wish to watch something that feels familiar but at the same time completely original and new, this’ll be the show for you!

Can you describe the process of writing the play?

As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I’ve always wanted to add my personal spin to the mythos. Most people know of the story of the Sword in the Stone and the heroic journey Arthur goes on to become the King of Britain, but what fascinated me was the end of his life. He becomes a passive ruler, allowing space for other knights (such as Lancelot or Gawain) to take the stage within the later stories. Slowly everything he has built crumbles away from him until his final confrontation with his illegitimate son Mordred.

The show is notable for its gender-blind casting, with male actors playing female characters and vice versa. Was this a conscious decision from the beginning, or something that just happened naturally?

It was something we’ve been open about from the very beginning. During the readthrough Tom Plenderleith, the director, wanted to hear every member of the cast read for each part, then afterwards fit them into the role that best suited them. Due to the nature of the heightened text and the compact storytelling that must fit within a Fringe setting, we knew this was something we wanted to explore and experiment with. We also wanted to make clear that our actors are just people telling a story to the audience.

Which other writers and texts influenced the play’s formation?

Apart from the language of Shakespeare, I’ve been also influenced by the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, members of the Black Library [a division of Games Workshop] and of course the numerous collaborators within the lore of the Arthurian Legends. I’m also a fan of slam poetry and have been involved with numerous groups from my hometown Lincoln, which kindled my love for poetry and inspired me to keep writing.

What’s it like putting on a show at the Fringe?

It can be a tough time putting on a Fringe show, this is my second time taking a show to Edinburgh. My first was with my year group at Italia Conti drama school back in 2018, we took a Welsh play called The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas.

I started by pitching my idea to my friends at Draft99, they seemed excited to undergo this project and help me on the journey. In May we launched a successful Kickstarter campaign which greatly helped with the funding of the show and along with funding from me and a few close friends we managed to scrape together enough for two shows at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, one at the Terry O’Toole in Lincoln and then two weeks up in Edinburgh.

What’s next for the play, and for your theatre company Draft99? Would you all like to work together again?

I’m currently in the midst of writing an Act 1 to the show. There was so much that was left on the cutting room floor that I feel needs a time in the spotlight. The team at Draft99 are looking to develop some of their older projects and forge forward with some new ideas awaiting in the pipeline. We’ve had such an amazing time as a company and there’s every possibility of working together again in the future.

Finally: When and where can people see Artorigus?

It’s on at theSpace @ Niddry Street at 1:40PM until 27 August.

Chris Dobson is a freelance journalist from the North of England. He now lives in North London and is passionate about theatre, film and literature.