Monday 30 April 2018

Another green world… Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Michael Smith and Company, St Leonard’s Church, Hertford

The fascination of medieval literature is in truly understanding the mind of those who wrote it; we may not know the name of the person who wrote Gawain but we know a lot about how he thought and what his preoccupations were.

Tonight, what better place to reconnect with the medieval mind than inside an 11th Century church that predates the Conqueror and which opened its doors three hundred years before Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was composed. In this place there’s a Saxon window beyond an exquisite Norman arch and the walls are covered with frescoes of Christ and crucifixion drawn by hands in fear and wonder. St Leonard’s is Hertford’s oldest building and has lived a life, from the time of King Cnut the Great to Cromwell using it to keep horses during the Civil War and its modern-day restoration.

It is a beautiful, slightly pagan place and the perfect venue for tonight’s performance. Michael Smith is a man of Cheshire and he has spent years crafting a new translation of this alliterative poem written by that unknown hand from the same county. These words run deep and for the Warrington-born medievalist, writer, performer and print maker, there’s a connection with soil and soul.

This was the second performance of Smith’s new translation and the production has advanced very quickly into a tightly-wrought folk-theatre. The director is Mike Ashman, who in addition to a CV including stints directing at the Royal Opera and Welsh Opera, is Hertford born and grew up opposite this very church. His direction saw the players use the full length of the church to superb effect, pulling in a packed house to this wondrous but not necessarily immediately-accessible world.

Jon Banks and Mike Smith
Musical accompanist Jon Banks has an international profile too and is a medieval multi-tasker playing countless arcane instruments whether as Musical Director of the Globe Theatre, a member of the Burning Bush (who did the music for the BBC series Inside the Medieval Mind) and the Dufay Collective. Tonight, Jon’s improvisations weaved around the words, under-scoring with practiced precision as well as adding dramatic weight to the swing of axe and the fall of head.

Michael Smith took the lead role as speaker and was ably supported by Stuart Handysides (now there’s a name with some ancient heritage!) as second speaker and the mighty Alex Young as Narrator, a role created to bridge parts of the original narrative in order to enable more concise word play.

The three were fascinating to watch as the poem flowed between them and I really enjoyed the overlapping segments of the original (and enjoyably impenetrable) Middle English (North Western dialect) and the new translation: you felt the translation was happening afresh in front of your very eyes. The audience was face to face with the actors as they read mostly underneath that Norman arch, which was bathed in bright green lighting for the evening. With Jon Banks set up behind them it created a focused poetic momentum that pulled us in and drove us on.

Stuart Handysides and Michael Smith
The story involves the testing of Sir Gawain, the youngest of King Arthur’s knights who takes up a deadly challenge when the imposing Green Knight arrives in Camelot on New Year’s Day. The Green Knight weilds a huge axe and, refusing to fight any of the knights on the grounds that they are too weak, he offers to exchange a single strike of the axe in exchange for a return blow in a year’s time. Sir Gawain duly slices the axe down clean through the Knight’s proffered neck but, still standing, he picks his head up and, climbing back on his green steed, tells Gawain he will see him at the Green Chapel to complete the exchange.

Sir Gawain sets off in search of the Chapel and has many adventures en route, travelling through North Wales, Anglessey, “Holy Head” (not Holyhead but more probably Holywell near Flint) and from there across the wastelands of the Wirral (have you seen some of the fairways on Heswall Golf Course?!).

It’s not hard to imagine how treacherous these paths would have been for a single traveller, even one armed with sword and on horseback: Gawain is all alone and his real trials have yet to begin. Eventually he arrives at the estate of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert (possibly Swythamley near Macclesfield) who tells him the Green Chapel is close by and that he can stay as his guest until his appointment with green. Also present is Lady Bertilak and a mysterious old lady. Soon there is much sport as Gawain goes hunting with the Lord and is sorely tempted by his Lady… these are tests of chastity, chivalric honour and Christian faith; in the Fourteenth Century there was little more important.

Michael Smith
How Gawain conducts himself give fascinating insights into the rules of the game and his life and his soul, will depend on it.

Mr Smith’s translation brings this language and its true eloquence to life and the vigour of the performance brought a visceral edge to medieval mannerisms. The three speakers worked very well as they took turns in carrying the narrative and I was particularly impressed as Messrs Handysides and Smith handled the amorous teasing of the good Lady B. It’s a play with humour as well as honour which, together with faith, were pretty much the whole world for men and women of the 1300s.

Michael Smith’s illustrated translation featuring his unique linocuts, is published on 26th July and is available from Unbound (where you can still get the high-quality collectors first edition), Penguin online and Amazon – I look forward to reading the full story and relishing this uncanny tale.

Hopefully there’ll be more performances though as this is language that really must be recited and performed – a living link to ancient concerns that drive us still!

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** A visceral meeting of modern and medieval mind.

Green light through yonder window glaze...
Three watchers without
Frescoes drawn from fear and faith

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