Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Wed 12th – Sat 15th February 2014


Joshua Phillips

at 10:59 on 13th Feb 2014



Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is very much an odd mishmash of a production; a contradictory mixture of conflicting elements. You might well expect this from the general premise of the production: an adaptation of a 14th century Middle English poem written in a difficult, alliterative idiom, Sir Gawain tells the tale of the eponymous knight at King Arthur’s court who accepts the challenge of a mysterious man, as green as he is gigantic, to strike him with his axe and, in return, to receive a blow in a year and a day. It is perhaps not the first thing that springs to mind when asked to consider adapting a Middle English poem — if, indeed anything does spring to mind at all. (Any ideas? Send in your answers with a stamped, addressed antelope and we’ll get back to you.)

And herein perhaps lies the seeds of the play’s biggest downfall. It doesn’t quite know where it stands in relation to the original text. The play’s script is a pastiche of long-winded alliterative verse — which, at best, sounds like Christopher Marlowe on acid, and at worst, just becomes a tedious porridge of words that seem to exist for the sake of alliterating. At times, this works well. James Mooney’s Merlin, for instance: this kind of dialogue seems more fitting from the mouth of an ancient, mythic wizard than some bloke in a castle. Equally, when the play leaves off the naturalist idiom it seems to slip into by default, such as in the three hunt scenes, the language becomes a feverish incantation that raises the play up rather than dragging it down. The way in which the play’s dialogue is constructed is a tricky one to naturalise, and the play is best when it doesn’t try to do so.

The play does, however, do something very special indeed. Visually, it can be quite spectacular. The floor of the O’Reilly is turfed, and branches hung over the stage, turning it into a sylvan grotto of sorts. But this is nothing compared to the puppetry. Faintly reminiscent of Toby Sedgwick’s anti-naturalist aesthetic in War Horse, these angular, spiky cardboard puppets are brought to leaping, snorting life by a team of talented puppeteers. And this is to say nothing of the Green Knight’s costume — built in a similar style, it towers over the rest of the cast, some eight or nine feet tall, its face a great, green death mask. It is nothing short of impressive.

The question is, though, does all this add up to a coherent play? I’m not sure that it does, really. At times, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more than the sum of its parts, and something that needs seeing. At others, though, I just wished it were over quicker. It’s a play that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing; one that prioritises visuals over acting and sight over sound. And this is perhaps what is most sad about it: had the actors been directed with as much care and attention that was lavished over the puppetry, it would be a very different play indeed.


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