Sunday 24 November 2019

Poetry knight… The Alliterative Morte Arthure, St James’ Church

This was an evening of candle-lit re-connection with the medieval spirit of both location and subject matter; we started off sat in our pews – nursing complimentary port - and ended up standing spellbound following the three performers as they paced this ancient space playing out this eternal chivalric drama. It’s no mean feat to bring archaic language and sentiment to life but Michael Smith achieves is with a mix of painstaking diligence and pure passion. This is not to be confused with earnestness, as his work here as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is always infused with wit and a sense of mischief: this is how these stories can best be experienced, as live entertainment.

Poetry performed in public, much like silent film, finds a new dimension with the combination of audience, venue and live accompaniment, here provided by Jon Banks, a multi-instrumental medievalist who is a musical director at the Globe Theatre as well as being a noted scholar. Jon added flavour and support to the narrative sat amongst his lute, dulcimer, trumpet, percussion and, crucially, a “rain stick”!

The poem was performed by Michael Smith, Alex Young and Stuart Handysides, the three carrying torches to illustrate their scripts in the low light of St James’ , built early in the 12th Century. The church is only open four times a year and looked magical with freshly restored walls flickering in the candlelight, shadows cast over the artefacts of so much faith and hope.

Alex Young, Michael Smith,  and Stuart Handysides
The church pre-dates the poem by two centuries but not the complicated history of the Arthurian legends which, dating from the 6th Century were first encoded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1138) and which were embellished with fresh characters such as Lancelot, Percival and Yvain by French poet, Chrétien de Troyes in the later 12th Century. The Alliterative poem was penned by an unknown author and dates from about 1400 and adds the Roundtable and other elements to Monmouth’s story.

Michael has been translating the poem from its Lincolnshire dialect for some two years and the results will be published in 2020 strikingly illustrated by his original linocuts. Tonight, was the premier of the work in a theatrical setting directed by Mike Ashman, a former director of the Royal Opera House who knows a thing or two about the dramatic dynamics of myths and legends.

Mr Ashman had the players using every corner of St James, from the pulpit to the altar and they walked up and down the transept throughout the performance: theatre in the round that surrounded the audience, surprising us with action and unfolding meaning. The poem is definitely a "PG" and during key battles the players walked up and down the aisle waving their torches like swords, remarkably effective and quite startling when a bowel is pierced or a sword enters a skull mere inches from where you are standing!
Michael Smith 
After Michael Smith had set the scene and explained the background to the story, the play began with a rousing performance of early 19th Century song, All Around My Hat (I Will Wear the Green Willow), as the players sang their way the length of the church before the verses began.

This story has some less familiar episodes to the well-trodden paths of recent books and films… Arthur travels to Rome to meet the challenge of Emperor Lucius who has sent emissaries demanding fealty. Arthur has always been apart of this island’s self-definition and you only have to glance at 12th Century politics to understand the drivers for this war on mainland Europe.

Queen Guinevere is left in the care of Sir Mordred (Arthur’s nephew) as he heads off to battle and whilst he may be victorious the seeds of future defeat in the longer war for Albion are sown… Arthur’s crusade is a "just" one dedicated to overthrowing a pagan Emperor but war makes him cruel and he levels Metz with excessive force. His dreams are troubling and he fears his own pride - "surquedry" - may doom him as he looks beyond the fight for independence to becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

Sir Gawain by contrast is shown to be impeccably chivalrous earning the respect of even his deadliest foes. Arthur is not an inflexible leader, he can learn from his knights as well as from experience and dreams...
Jon Banks
All builds up to a rousing, battling finish as the body count accelerates and Arthur defines his nobility against the odds by deed and word. He has but scores of his knights against Mordred’s thousands, but right as well as might is on his side.

Whilst Arthur’s story is so familiar in terms of action what Mr Smith has done is to explain how it was felt by Britons in the 1400s… an entirely different age in which the concept of self was so different and yet in which essential human values were perhaps not so different?

All three leads gave forceful performances Mr Young so firm of voice, Mr Handysides resolute and fluent with Mr Smith leading the line with intensity and conviction; as he phased across the centuries talking the medieval walk with relish. At the finish the cold, un-heated space was warmed by an extended ovation; St James’ had been animated again as had the memory of the Once and Future King; performative history from the medieval mind-set.

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** A thrilling glimpse inside the medieval mind and a new appreciation of the importance of Arthurian legend from one of its oldest, most accomplished sources.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is published in September 2020 and you can pre-order from the publisher, Unbound, website.

Here’s to more medieval adventures in 2020!
One of Michael Smith's linocuts for the new book

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