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Off-Centerpiece : The Once and Future Queen

Mary Williams Walsh is The Times' correspondent in Canada

Ten years ago, Laurel Phelan was an unextraordinary young professional, working 9-to-5 as an accountant for a Vancouver oil company and training when she could for a life as a coloratura on the local opera scene.

But then one night began a series of recurrent nightmares--blood-soaked dreams that today seem destined to hurl Phelan down an unexpected path to Hollywood success.

All night long, Phelan recalls, she lay abed witnessing vivid scenes of death and destruction: Fortifications were in flames around her, horses were rearing, and she herself was pouncing on various marauding males, dispatching them with a two-foot sword applied straight through the neck. She was encased in a body that felt smaller and lighter than her own, and in an unfamiliar, throaty contralto, she addressed the men nearby as “Arthur,” “Lancelot” and “Merlin.”

They called her “Gwynnefwar.”

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“I didn’t like the idea of killing people, so naturally, I woke up in cold sweats,” says Phelan, now 32. “I wasn’t getting much sleep. It was affecting my work.”

The anguished and exhausted Phelan consulted a psychologist experienced in “regressions,” the hypnotic trips back in time that supposedly help patients review their previous lives. Reclining in her therapist’s chair, peering out at a wide-screen world of long-ago England, Phelan says she soon discovered the cause of her nightly torment: In a past life, she had been Queen Guinevere, the love interest in most popular treatments of the Arthurian legend.

Phelan has never doubted this diagnosis for a moment. However, she says Guinevere’s life was not the “brief, shining moment” that songsters Lerner and Loewe, among others, have made it out to be.

“I’d grown up in Montreal and heard this lovely little tale of the romance between Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights in shining armor,” she says. “But what I had been experiencing was this cold woman, full of anger and egotism. She was very good at wielding a knife and riding a horse. None of the writers have acknowledged her powers.”

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The discovery that she had once been a pre-Norman English queen worried Phelan, who had had no previous interest in Camelot or the Dark Ages--who indeed had never even cracked the spine of “The Once and Future King,” much less a recondite work on early British history.

“I realized this was going to take over my life,” she says. “And I was already having a wonderful life. I liked my job. I didn’t want to get caught in Guinevere.”

Phelan tried to press on, showing Guinevere the door again and again. She began a new career, running her own personnel agency from her home.

But for all Phelan’s efforts to take control of her life, the dreams came back. . The nightly violence worsened. “I was unable to work for a few weeks,” she says. “I was emotionally and physically sick.”

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And then, two years ago, at a dinner party, came a chance encounter that may ultimately prove to be her big break in show business. She was seated across from Terence Hayes, a one-time singer who had gone into television, working as a location and production manager for American TV shows shot in Vancouver.

Hayes asked Phelan what she did. “Past-life regressions,” she said. Who had she been before, he wanted to know. “Guinevere,” she said.

Hayes suggested that her story would make a good screenplay, and gave her some scriptwriting tips.

He says he figured he would probably never hear from her again, but unbeknown to him, Phelan went home, canceled all her appointments, turned on a tape recorder, and spent the next few days regressing to the 5th Century, where, she says, she sat through a screening of Guinevere’s life from start to finish.

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She taped her observations while she watched, then spent the next two weeks beating her raw notes, first into scenes and then a complete script.

Then she dumped the 209-page “Guinevere: Truth of a Legend” on Hayes’ desk.

Hayes says he likes to think of himself as a serious businessman--not the sort to enter lightly into dealings with somone who might be perceived to be a crackpot. Fearing the worst, he turned to the typescript.

“I was hooked,” he says. “The story was just too good.”

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These days, lots of other people are saying much the same thing. Alex Thomson, director of photography for “Aliens” and “Superman,” has written Hayes to confirm his interest in working on the Guinevere film if it does go forward.

“I’ve read the script, which is quite good,” says Thomson, now in Los Angeles to work on the new Sylvester Stallone film, “Demolition Man.” I hope (Hayes) gets it off the ground. It’s very courageous of him, taking on a project of this size without any track record.”

Helena Bonham-Carter, who played the luxuriantly coiffed Lucy Honeychurch in “A Room With a View” and who more recently appeared in “Howards End,” reports via her agent that she is interested in the title role. Brian Blessed, who was Lord Locksley in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” is committed to playing Guinevere’s father if the project goes ahead. And production designer Andrew Saunders’ agent says Saunders would like to design the film.

Hayes says that in the beginning, he figured the picture would be a low-budget affair, but more recently some promising talks with Ian Smith, producer of “The Mission,” “The Killing Fields” and “City of Joy,” have buoyed his expectations. He now envisions a budget of up to $30 million, and notes that J&M; Entertainment Ltd., a London film-distribution and financing concern, has made tentative arrangements to finance up to 50% of the film’s costs in exchange for world rights.

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J&M;'s chairman and chief executive officer, Michael Ryan, says the financing is contingent on the final selections of a director and cast--and on Hayes’ ability to line up another backer for the North American rights.

“The script is very unusual,” says Ryan, whose company’s credits include “Homicide” and “Tales From the Dark Side.”

“I suppose in a way it’s kind of like Coppola’s treatment of ‘Dracula,’ in that it follows the original plot but offers a number of added twists. It’s quite a good piece of writing.”

If all goes according to plan, “Guinevere: Truth of a Legend” will begin shooting in May in Ireland.

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Getting things this far hasn’t all been a fairy tale. Early on, Universal Studios expressed an interest in the project, but producer Sam Kitt wanted to tone down Phelan’s hell-on-wheels Guinevere and give King Arthur more of the action.

“I remember exactly the words they used: ‘Men don’t want to see women in such powerful roles,’ ” says Phelan. “I said, ‘Thank you for your opinion, but this is the truth. I can’t change it.’ ”

She and Hayes broke off the talks with Universal, formed their own production company, and took the project to England, where interest in matters Camelotian is more intense and, as Hayes puts it, “everybody’s hungry” for work in the film business.

Phelan is in England now, scouting for cast and locations, and making a splash among Arthurians and fellow mystics. Appearances on English TV talk shows have provoked hundreds of phone calls from people who want to tell her of their own dreams and deja vu adventures. People stop Phelan in the street for her autograph. During a recent interview, her doorbell rang; a stranger stood on the threshold, carrying a bouquet of flowers for his one-time queen.

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“It’s strange that people are acknowledging me so much,” says Phelan, who in a phone conversation from London comes across as engaging and articulate."I don’t really feel responsible for the screenplay. I’d be foolish to think I had the imagination to create something like this, especially in such a short time.”

While it’s true that no one can prove that King Arthur and his queen ever existed, Phelan says that British scholars confirm that her descriptions are closer to what is known of the putative Arthurian era than much of what’s in the ballads and the Broadway lyrics.

Phelan, for instance, reports that the Arthur of her regressions was really a duke, not a king. Historians agree that it was probably the Saxons, who came later to Celtic England, who puffed him up into a full-blown monarch. Phelan says that “Gwynnefwar"--the name she heard in her dreams of 10 years ago--conforms to the original Celtic pronunciation.

Her dreams were free of the props of Hollywood’s Camelot: no suits of armor, for instance, and no moated castles, which, as it happens, were artifacts tacked onto the Arthurian story centuries later. Phelan even says that when she “attended” Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding, the vows were recited in Latin, a language she has never studied. She entered a few of the nuptial phrases on her tape recordings and confirmed their authenticity with an classics-loving friend.

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Hayes, meanwhile, wants to make the film’s professed historical authenticity a marketing gimmick. “You’ve seen Camelot the fantasy, now see Guinevere the reality,” he suggests.

He also thinks Phelan’s post-feminist message is spot-on for the 1990s.

For Guinevere, it turns out, was anything but the demure, fairy-tale damsel that the troubadours described.

On the contrary, says Phelan, the real Guinevere was the only child of a Celtic noble who raised her as the son he never had. What little womanly influence her frail, sickly mother may have exerted was pretty much for naught. Phelan’s Guinevere was well-schooled in battlefield tactics, went to war with her father and married Arthur for power. Raped at 14, Phelan says, Guinevere turned her back on the life of the emotions and became determined to live on male terms in a man’s world. She never let go of herself with Arthur, never even realized that she loved him, and had sport with his knights only to manipulate him. Guinevere even had abortions--she used herbs, Phelan reports--to control her fertility, to the dismay of Arthur, who wanted a brood.

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“She didn’t want to be a woman, because women were more vulnerable and more weak,” says Phelan.

After Arthur fell in battle, Phelan says, Guinevere realized that she loved the master of the Round Table, regretted having slept around on him, and, as Phelan puts it, discovered “that her greatest strength was in her womanhood, and not trying to be a man.”

Phelan says she never had any secret hopes of playing Guinevere in the film. She says her voice is too high, her frame too large--and at 32, she’s already too old. Besides, she says, she considers herself a calm person, and doesn’t think she could possibly evoke Guinevere’s anger and lust for power.

What she does want, she says, is to see the film make her enough money to build an alternative healing center on northern Vancouver Island. After all, alternative therapy seems to have worked wonders for Phelan. Her nightmares are long gone. She has gone into business as a regressions counselor herself.

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It’s fine with her that when people ask for her autograph, they don’t want her to sign “Laurel Phelan.” They ask her to sign “Guinevere.”


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