A Star of ‘Camelot’ Is Transmitting Shakespeare to the Next Generation

On a recent Wednesday, a dozen cast members of “Camelot” gathered in a circle in the basement rehearsal room of the Lincoln Center Theater. Fergie Philip, who plays Lord Sagramore and stands in for King Arthur, sat in the center chair, staring questioningly at the monologue from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Act V, Scene 1.

Beside him stood Dakin Matthews, who plays both Merlin and Pellinore, in cargo pants and a purple polo shirt. As Philip began to speak, Matthews narrowed his eyes and quietly said his words.

“I still curse that day—” Philip said, but was quickly interrupted by Matthews stabbing his finger in the air.

“You fell ‘that day,'” Matthews said, pointing to Philip’s wrong inflection.

Over the next two hours, Matthews guided the group through monologues of “Julius Caesar,” “Henry IV,” and “Macbeth,” roaming the room interrupting the performers to correct their pronunciation of “dose” and help them find “inner shapes” in the text.

“I feel like a monk keeping something alive in the Bible room,” Matthews said.

An 82-year-old theater veteran, Matthews has performed in over 200 shows worldwide, from Broadway to Madrid’s Spanish Theater. His life has become inseparable from the stage. In addition to his acting career, he has directed, translated and written a number of his own plays, many of which have been staged on the West Coast.

But my colleagues know Matthews best as a master of the complex world of Shakespeare’s plays, the man who teaches you exactly how to untangle the thorny sentences of “Henry IV.” Also, when I’m on the show, I often host workshops where young members can learn Shakespeare.

“It’s completely understood that there’s someone in this room who has a lot more experience than us, puts in more effort, and is performing on another level with a different talent than we are. And we all agreed, we knew, and we decided, ‘Yes, let me know,'” Philippe said.

Born in Oakland, California in 1940, Matthews grew up in a large Irish family. She met Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” in her second year of Catholic high school.

He hoped to enter the priesthood and moved to Rome to continue his religious education.

One summer in 1962 he traveled from Rome to Stratford, England, where he saw his first professional Shakespeare production. It was Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Matthews, then 21, was riveted.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” he recalls. “It really felt like you were walking into a portal, you were entering another world.”

A seed has been planted. “This is something you can actually do,” he realized.

Back in Rome, he rallied other novice priests, bought costumes at a theater store, and directed two student plays, Julius Caesar and Henry IV.

Matthews (middle right) plays the title role in the 1963 Shakespeare student play Julius Caesar.credit…Via Dakin Matthews

Matthews returned to the Bay Area and later completed a master’s degree in English at the East Bay, where he became a professor. In 1965, during his graduate studies, he won the role of Falstaff in Henry IV at the Marin Shakespeare Festival.

For the next 20 years, Matthews taught and rehearsed by day, and by night he appeared in shows around the Bay Area in a green Volkswagen Beetle. (He met his wife Anne McNaughton at the Santa Clara Shakespeare Festival in 1967.)

In 1990 he quit teaching and moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his acting work and began appearing in films and television such as Down Home, Soulman and The Jeff Foxworthy Show.

Matthews made his Broadway debut in 2003 in Henry IV. Ethan Hawke, who plays Hotspur, remembers watching in awe as Matthews argued with Kevin Kline, who played Falstaff, over text details.

“It’s like listening to Thoreau and Emerson arguing about the current state of humanity,” Hawke said. “It was life and death for them.”

Matthews’ earliest Shakespeare workshop for other actors was in Los Angeles in 2001 for the actors in Peter Hall’s Romeo and Juliet. He also held classes on Broadway productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and taught classes at New York’s Actors Center. As the closing night of Camelot on July 23 approached, Matthews resumed his workshop.

Philippe said that learning from Matthews has made his acting in “Camelot” more versatile.

“It gave me the opportunity to play a little more. I could find some new things in the character every night,” he said. “It just turns you into a smarter actor.”

Matthews said he doesn’t plan on quitting acting, but that he’s starting to feel his age after losing 20 pounds while starring in Camelot. His knees started to creak and his voice didn’t work as well as it used to.

“It felt like work for the first time,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve seriously thought about retirement.”

For now, he intends to continue acting and mentoring younger generations of actors.

“We’re trying to fill the gaps and gaps,” he said. “And someone has to continue doing something in some way.”

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