You can see why they wanted to cast David Gant in the twin roles of King Arthur and Merlin. Just look at his tumbling mane of grey hair, his elder-statesman’s beard and his chiselled features. Isn’t that exactly how the heroes of Arthurian legend are supposed to look?
“I’ve always wanted to play King Arthur,” says the 73-year-old. Although he has played Merlin a couple of times on TV, he also had parts in Braveheart and Gandhi and played the lead role in King Lear, so he can’t complain about being typecast.
This version of King Arthur is adapted by Adam Fletcher-Forde of Story Pocket Theatre from Arthur, High King of Britain, the novel by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. Billed as an “epic tale of deep magic, heroism, love and betrayal”, it is about a boy who is rescued from the sea by an old man who claims to be King Arthur Pendragon. His stories of battles and bravery – and the sword in the stone – prove his credentials.
“I saw Story Pocket Theatre’s Arabian Nights and it was just amazing,” says Gant. “They were telling stories, which is basic to everybody. When I was doing pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, I would dress up as the character and go to the children’s library, get the easier version of Cinderella or Snow White and read it to the little children. The people who were interested most of all were the parents. It was the same with Arabian Nights; the parents just sat entranced. That’s why you give children’s theatre the same input as adult theatre. This is a beautiful script and it doesn’t talk down to children.”
It is Gant’s striking appearance that explains the Scottish actor’s parallel career as a fashion model. Unlikely as it may seem, it began at the age of 57. That was when he was hired to be the face of Guinness in a German billboard campaign. The photographer recommended him to a fashion designer and the rest is history. “It was a revelation,” says Gant. “I felt completely at ease.”
He has subsequently posed for David Bailey, taken to the catwalk in Milan and appeared on the covers of fashion magazines. He’s a regular on the Guardian’s style pages and was named one of the Times’ best-dressed men.
“The one great advantage about modelling is you don’t have to remember lines,” he laughs, just off the plane from Stockholm where he has been modelling designer glasses. “I like being in front of a camera – that’s not a big-headed thing, I just do. With fashion, if you’re enjoying it, it will come through in the images.”
All the while, he has maintained his career as an actor, although it is getting on for 30 years since he performed at the Fringe. He was part of the Traverse in 1987 in the company’s old Grassmarket home, appearing in Abel Barebone and Playing with Fire. “Those were great days – some of the happiest times in the theatre for me,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to the hurly-burly of the festival again.”
Words: Mark Fisher
Picture: Matthew Kaltenborn
Michael Morpurgo’s King Arthur Gilded Balloon at the Museum, 3–29 August, 2.45pm