On Saturday, December 3rd, the 13th century church of St James at Stansteadbury, Stanstead Abbotts was the perfect setting for a performance of the Mediaeval alliterative poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. The event was a sellout - with more than 200 guests raising substantial funds for the church's upkeep.
The atmosphere on the night was perfect - due in no small part to the efforts made by members of the Friends of St James' Church. The audience had to follow a path lit by blazing torches to the porch of the candle-lit church where the reindeer antlers and holly bedecked pews and window-sills created an authentic background and atmosphere for the music and words of this mid-winter tale; and was very much like venues which would have hosted the original readings of this narrative poem.
The performance was based on a new translation, with linking verses, by Ware-based mediaevalist Michael Smith, who also produced the event for the church. Some of the original Middle-English wording was included allowing the audience to appreciate the beauty of the alliterative verse and the sounds of the Northern dialect in which it was written by the unknown poet.
Directed by Mike Ashman and performed by three actors, (Mike Salter, Stuart Handysides and Michael Smith) - two ‘speakers’ and a narrator - the words of the 14th century poem were punctuated by emphatic drum-beats and beautiful music arranged and performed by Jon Banks. The overall effect was truly magical.
The tale is from the North of England and the action moves from jollifications at Christmas time in King Arthur’s court to an extraordinary challenge made by an unexpected visitor, the Green Knight, who asks if anyone at the court is brave enough to execute him – provided that he returns the favour in a year’s time! Gawain accepts the challenge but when the Knight picks up his head and leaves, Gawain realises he is now committed to having the score settled a year later...
After due time he sets out on his journey passing through Anglesey and the Wirral to find the Green Knight. The passage of time and Gawain’s travels were accompanied by the movements of the three actors around the church where platforms had been installed to raise the speakers high enough to be seen by the audience – many of whom were seated inside the unusually high seventeenth century box pews.
Just when it seems that Gawain has run out of time to find the Green Knight, he arrives at a mysterious castle. It mistakenly seems to Gawain that the time he spends with a hospitable knight at this castle - where he is tempted by the seductive techniques of the Lord’s wife - are incidental to his main errand.
The reading of the scenes between Gawain and this lady were particularly dramatic and engaging thanks to the use made of the two levels of the pulpit in the centre of the church.
In fact there are still a couple of surprises in store for Gawain who eventually meets the Green Knight to accept his payment.
Yet he lives to tell his tale on his return to Camelot, although he is a changed man who has learned a hard lesson about pride, honesty and his own fallibility – which causes the reader/listener to question the chivalric code.
The members of the audience who packed the church were enthusiastically reflecting on the drama whilst enjoying their mince pies and mulled wine and it was generally considered that the evening had been so unusual and enjoyable that further opportunities should be found for similar entertainment in the future.
Copies of Michael Smith’s translation of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, illustrated with his lino-cut prints, is currently in production and will be published by Unbound in September 2018. To pledge for your own deluxe collector's first edition - and have your name printed in the back as a supporter - click here
Greetings cards by Michael, featuring linocut scenes from the story, are available now at www.mythicalbritain.co.uk.
Photographs: Jane Moseley