Picture this: you're a good-looking, fit young man who has just spent two months struggling through an inhospitable wilderness, before finding sanctuary in a jolly castle over Christmas. Your host instructs you to recover from your exhaustion by having a nice lie-in while he goes out hunting. His gorgeous young wife sneaks into your room, pins you down on the bed, and pretty much offers you a spot of recreational rumpy-pumpy (Ye ar welcum to my cors/Yowre owen won to wale). What's not to like? Well, for one thing, you have entered into an agreement with your host that you will exchange whatever he gets out hunting with whatever you got lounging in bed all day – which could be awkward. For another thing, you're pretty sure that in a couple of days you'll be dead – you're a deeply religious young chap and you'd rather not face certain death in a state of mortal sin. But your upbringing and training forbid you to ever say rude disappointing things to beautiful ladies. You can see at once that this situation is ripe with both erotic and comic potential. At last! A brilliant and beautiful production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which fully embraces all its subtleties and complexities, without losing its sense of humour!
Dramatic adaptations of this incredibly wonderful medieval poem have had a somewhat chequered history, from the frightful British film of the mid-seventies, to a memorable production at the Playhouse in the early eighties in which the Lady threatened to escape from her very low-cut gown during the first seduction scene. This production fully makes up for all those earlier disappointments, and I'm truly delighted that I chose to see it last night, even though I got a parking ticket. Interestingly the theatre was pretty full, with a large number of people who had chosen ground-breaking theatre in preference to eating over-priced grub in over-crowded restaurants on Valentine's Day. Good for us, I say. If the excellent chaps at Daily Info manage to get this review up in time for anyone to read it before the final performance this evening, let me urge you to go and see it while you can. I will enumerate its excellencies:
1. A fantastically good script by actor/playwright Simon Corbell, newly updated from that first performed in 1992. He obviously knows and loves the original poem and his lovingly crafted verse version preserves both the alliteration and the north midlands dialect in places, without ever sacrificing clarity or drama. Truly an inspiring feat, and one that almost moved me to tears by the final quatrain. But it's not just a translation – he has made dramatic sense of the narrative by introducing completely new elements, notably the opening scene with King Arthur and his court enjoying their own version of a traditional Christmas game, and the use of Merlin as a kind of chorus to take us through the harrowing middle section of Gawain's journey.
2. An entertainingly novel staging. The O'Reilly Theatre is famously flexible and adapatible, but I've never seen it turned into a lawn before. They had actually turfed the central area over with real grass, which released a wonderfully sweet grassy smell when trampled upon by the company in their more dramatic moments. A transparent ceiling of branches stood in for the wilderness of the Wirral, and creative use of Ikea benches and throws effected the crucial transformation from greenwood to court. Beautiful and expensive-looking costumes, too, even if they did touchingly look as if they were made for slightly older, heavier people than the current actors.
3. Outstandingly creative use of exquisitely constructed puppets, which introduced a wonderful element of magic and mystery into the production. The towering presence of the gigantic Green Knight himself was impressive, and the beheading brilliantly captured. Full marks to the puppeteers, it can't have been an easy job to coordinate and manouevre a part-human, seven foot tall papier-mache giant.
4. A very good ensemble of young actors, who threw themselves into the play with total commitment. Outstanding among them was Dom Kurzeja as Sir Bertilak, dominating the stage with his charisma and energy; Duncan Cornish was a perfect Gawain, young and innocent but capable of emotional depth; James Mooney as Merlin did a fantastic job of delivering passages of translated medieval verse that actually made you wish they were longer; and Mary Clapp as the Lady (given a name in this production – Alison) – very beautiful and graceful, the embodiment of medieval posh totty. But everyone was good – no-one was weak or clearly a friend of the director. The director, Jonny Sellin, clearly had a powerful vision and had inspired unmistakeable esprit de corps in his company. Full marks to him.
So do brave the storms tonight if you can.