Stuart Paterson's splendid Merlin the Magnificent is unfurled this year at the Stirling MacRobert Centre, and school parties will be thrilled (and maybe a little frightened) by the forces at work in this battle, as Merlin says, of "right against wrong, light against dark". Once again the long-haired wizard saves the doughty young Arthur from the glittering Morgana Le Fay, with the help of the feisty Gwen, in the depths of the wildwood and the burning castle.
The assured production is by Annie Wood, and there is nothing strange in the fact that the centre's drama artist in residence, with so much of her work in educational drama, should be directing the "pantomime". Merlin is as "moral" as the most earnest theatre in education but, as it were, with bells on.
Paterson invests these myths and fairy tales with contemporary values in a way that makes them totally valid for young audiences. It is the ancient battle of "right against wrong", but in a fiction where the outcome is not to be taken for granted. Merlin is not a safety net; his power is finite, his magic can be exhausted. In fact, it is Gwen's very human determination that tips the scales. (Paterson was always strong on girl power.) By the same token, "wrong" is not unattractive. The malevolent Morgana lays Arthur in his great sleep with seductive caresses and soft words. "Wrong" in Paterson's plays does not advertise itself, and people of evil intent can begin with fair words; even Gwen is misled by a false friend. Again, "right" people can sometimes be "wrong".
It is this "moral" intent, played through frail heroes and demons, voiced with powerful, simple dialogue and cleverly paced in mood and narrative that marks out Stuart Paterson as a serious playwright who writes for children. A Christmas treat at the MacRobert might even be their best arts education of the year.