Saturday, 7 June 2014

Gawain & the Green Knight

Oh, wow! Yesterday we went to the Four of Swords Theatre's Gawain & the Green Knight in Exeter Cathedral. If you're in the region, check out out future productions.

Four of Swords is an energetic young company, and this was an iconoclastic and theatrically creative interpretation of the Gawain story. It's a very odd mix of chivalric romance and pagan symbolism, melded by the shared motif of honour in keeping to an agreement. For those who don't know it, here are the basics:
It describes how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious "Green Knight" who challenges any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him with his blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle.
- Wikipedia / Sir Gawain and the Green Knight / retrieved 7th June 2014
Photo by Benjamin Akira Tallamy & PKJ
reproduced as fair use for review
This production was done in Goth/punk style, lots of black, Dr Martens and faux tattoos, portraying Arthur as a bombastic illiterate child, playing with toys and video games, presiding over a jaded and cowardly court. Only the diffident Sir Gawain (David Johnson) takes up the offer when the Green Knight turns up and presents them with a genuinely numinous and dangerous challenge to their routine.

The play, with ambient music performed by the cast, was conducted on the move: Arthur's Christmas party in the Lady Chapel; Gawain's stay with the creepy Bertilak de Hautdesert (Philip Kingslan John) in the nave (including a brief multimedia sequence with hunting scenes shown as projection); and the final encounter with the Green Knight in the choir. There was a degree of audience participation, though not embarrassingly; the audience were involved in Arthur's lame story-telling (one lady said she'd fed her cat Felix); crackers and cake were passed around at Christmas, and we were invited to touch the beautifully-made hunting trophies that Bertilak presented to Gawain.

Photo by Matt Austin
reproduced as fair use for review
 The setting of Exeter Cathedral was inspired, one that brought immense age and depth to the play. It aso made it a genuinely edgy performance, particularly in relation to its upgrading the role of the sorceress Morgan le Fay (a scary body-painted Sarah White) to framing storyteller, bringing a pagan perspective to the tale and occasionally overt sarcasm toward Christian iconography. I'm not Christian, but there was a distinct frisson in a scene where Gawain stands in front of the cathedral altar and describes it as the most cursed place he's even been.

The contrast between the raw, pagan and satirical approach (the style has a lot in common with Mummers plays) and the awesomeness of the cathedral setting made this an intensely powerful and moving production. I'm not at all a fan of theatre, but this was different: a vivid experience that'll stick with me for a long time.

You'll probably be too late for the final 7th June production in Exeter Cathedral, but there's a repeat run at Poltimore House, Devon, on 7th - 9th August 2014. I can't recommend it too highly.

See Four of Swords Theatre / Gawain & the Green Knight for more background and "More photos & cool stuff".

Photo by Benjamin Akira Tallamy & PKJ
reproduced as fair use for review

- Ray