Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Simon Armitage presented his acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this week to a rapt audience. The Playhouse itself is exquisite – intimate and beautifully lit, it couldn’t be more suited to winter. Performances here feel like theatre in its most dramatic form.
Armitage enters the stage and immediately launches into a literal Middle English translation, before breaking off in laughter much to the relief of the audience. Accompanied by Jon Banks on the bray harp, the whole performance is infused with touches of humour; Armitage himself is methodically charismatic, and it’s a dry and witty translation. It perfectly evokes a post-feast storytelling one imagines might have taken place in medieval England during a siege. This rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is at once brilliantly modern and funny, but with the essence of the period. In this setting, the words wash over you, enhanced by the flickering light
The poet has enlisted the support of over-dramatic actors to flesh out this piece; this move elevates it from a poetry reading to a performance fitting this stunning Jacobean theatre. Polly Frame inflects her performance with the gumption behind Armitage’s writing, and Tom Stuart is hilarious as preening, holier-than-thou Sir Gawain. They’re rounded, thoroughly developed, although cleverly stereotypical characters. Their word play draws laughter from the audience, touched with parody, both subtle and obvious.
Gawain is on a quest to fulfil his promise to have his head lopped off by the Green Knight. En route he stops off on the hospitality of a welcoming knight and his beautiful lady wife. In the exchanges between Sir Gawain and the lady, it’s interestingly emphasised that it’s her who is the seducer – evidence of how the story went traditionally. The moral of this story is above all keeping promises and being true, putting “pride on trial” and being worthy of the title knight.
Armitage’s translation is a credit to his career as a poet, and this performance is testament to his skill as an orator – funny, honest and magnetic.
Photo: Helena Miscioscia
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a one-off event at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. For further information about Simon Armitage and future events visit here.