Candlelit and glowing with the sheen and scent of warm wood and gilt, the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse couldn’t be a more perfect proxy for a medieval banqueting hall. The 14th century Gawain poet’s work is set at the festivities surrounding two successive New Years at the court of King Arthur. Here, Simon Armitage reads from his elegant modern English translation in a storming seasonal treat.
Armitage plays with our expectations by reading a few lines of middle English with gutteral emphasis, then casts the original text with a mock sigh of relief in favour of his own fresh, clear and funny adaptation. For anyone who hasn’t studied the text, the sighs of relief may well be real; this staged reading is a brilliantly accessible route to a fascinating story.
The scene is a hall spread with a lavishly enumerated Christmas feast, but Arthur won’t touch so much as a capon drumstick until he hears a good story. What sounds like a classic framing device for introducing his knight Gawain’s story turns out to be rather more central. A jolly, literally green giant of a man strides in and interrupts the feast with a real-life challenge. Gawain accepts, and takes on an adventure that leads him far from the round table but still circles round its collective obsession with chastity, courtliness, bravery and honour.
Tom Stuart’s Gawain makes tacit acknowledgement of the fact that these days, it’s hard to take such abstract nouns seriously. He’s fey, posh and ever so slightly camp. Opposite him, Polly Frame is a masterful choice as holly-hued Bertilak, making the giant’s thundering footsteps with in neat measured steps, and drawing up her chin to boom an astonishingly loud set of mocking threats to the assembled court. Their egoes rub up against a text with a forceful personality of its own. Simon Armitage visibly enjoys reeling off lines that conjure Bertilak “all glimmering and glinting with the greenest jewels”, their jostling rhythms an echo of his source’s distinctively medieval alliterative poetic style.
There’s more magic on offer in ensuing episodes The Globe’s “Concerts by Candlelight” series: a neat and nearly irresistible collection of Monday and Tuesday night performed readings of literary works, making full use of a stage that’s busy being blood-drenched by Jacobean tragedy during the rest of the week. Chekhov, Daphne du Maurier, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce are all still due some festive varnish over the Christmas season.
The wooden Playhouse’s intimate fug of candlelit visual intensity elevates this reading from a literary love-in into a transporting experience. Packed in on benches, any discomfort is held in suspense by a telling that brings us back to older, aural traditions of authorship and poetry.