Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe
Poet Simon Armitage brings the humour, drama and beauty of this early English classic to life in a dramatised reading.
The Snowman…A Christmas Carol…The Nutcracker…they’re all tales securely embedded as festive classics, revived and reinvented each year. But scroll back 600 years and there’s another story set on Christmas Eve, that would have had its audience quivering with a mix of fear, pride and awe.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written by an anonymous poet, possibly from the Midlands, and is here translated – loosely but lovingly – by Simon Armitage. It’s no longer a scholarly tract for literature students to haul their way through to pass an early English module. It’s an exciting, sexy thriller with two gorgeous men, a foxy heroine, a challenge, a quest, a seduction – everything to get pulses racing on one of the coldest and darkest nights of the year.
Armitage’s new translation caused such a stir when first published that even Tesco agreed to stock it, and Ian McKellen recorded it for Radio 4 in 2006. But what better surroundings could there be for this newly staged reading than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe? Its candle-lit intimacy and narrow wooden benches create an environment that’s the closest we’ll come to clustering round a storyteller in the great hall.
Armitage himself is joined on stage by actors Tom Stuart and Polly Frame, and musician Jon Banks, whose harp creates a delicately atmospheric soundtrack as the narrative unfolds.
The original, hand-sized manuscript in the British library has no title, and this presumably kept fresh the shock value of the story’s first plot twist. It opens with the arrival of a stranger on horseback at King Arthur’s court, where the Camelot Christmas revels are in full swing. The newcomer is described in intimate detail by the poet, who carefully notes the slim, sleek waist, the close fitting clothes, hunky beard and powerful physique before dropping the G-bomb on his listeners.
From Martians to the Hulk and Shrek, nothing says ‘otherness’ quite like green skin, and the Knight’s bare feet, top-to-toe greenness and the holly sprig he carries are all potent symbols of nature’s immutable power of death and renewal.
Armitage’s poetry is packed with the alliteration of the original – try saying, ‘Blood gutters brightly against his green gown’ aloud. But he’s used his own skill and poetic imagination in creating the vivid atmosphere of the story, and northern vernacular to make the Green Knight sound splendidly rude and insulting when he addresses the unbearded young knights of Camelot as ‘bum-fluffed bairns’. Smarting from this scorn, it’s small wonder that gallant Sir Gawain cannot resist accepting the Knight’s challenge to trade single blows, a year apart.
Armitage’s Gawain is very funny too, especially when read aloud, with unexpected laughs from expressions like: ‘and in the other hand held the mother of all axes, a cruel piece of kit I kid you not.’
Polly Frame is an impressive Green Knight, gracefully acknowledging her obvious physical differences to the monstrous man described, but immediately seizing authority with her resonant voice and swaggering confidence.
She’s also the insinuating temptress who tests Gawain’s courtly values remorselessly when he’s a guest in her castle, scenes which give Tom Stuart’s determinedly chaste Gawain some very entertaining moments of squirming awkwardness.
If there are a few vocal stumbles with the text at times, it’s scarcely surprising, given that everyone on stage is reading their lines by candlelight. It’s accepted that this is a staged reading, but it’s so good, so entertaining and so rich in incident that it begs the question: why it can’t be expanded into a fuller staging of the poem, with costumes, memorised lines, and dare one say, a nice big Green Knight galloping in on his charger, Warhorse style?
This tale is beautifully told in Armitage’s text. It deserves to be a fully-fledged Christmas classic.