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Brighton Fringe 2023

Low Down

Thirty years is a long time.  An average lifespan in the Middle Ages, but that’s the length of time since the young girl of fifteen, desperate to leave her father’s run-down manor house because she felt destined for something better, married Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert and became the mistress of his great Castle.

She never travelled to Camelot, though she did meet Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, and altered his destiny forever.  But that was all a long time ago, and Arthur is dead now, and so is her husband and most of the knights of the Round Table.  When we meet her she’s an old woman of forty-five, clutching her few remaining possessions and about to enter a nunnery.


‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is a late fourteenth century romance, a contemporary tale to the other Arthurian legends.  It’s a complex piece of literature, with possible meanings on a number of levels.  It’s about knightly honour, and courtly love, and the virtue of chastity.  It’s also about games, and tests, and keeping promises.  And overall, it might be about the span of a person’s life, and the passing of the seasons as the year turns.

It’s largely about chaps, though, as it says on the tin – ‘Sir Gawain and the green Knight‘.  Gawain is a bit of a prig – though we’ll come to that later – and his honour is tested by his host’s wife at Sir Bertilak’s castle.  She’s not given a name, her only role in the legend is to act as a temptress in Sir Bertilak’s game – but now Debbie Cannon has given us her side of the story, and it’s very much a Feminist take on the tale. It’s a one-woman show, directed by Flavia D’Avila.

A minimalist production, too.  She has only a few possessions, remember – a metal bowl and plate, an apple, a strip of green silk, a tambourine, and a large sheet of white cotton – but she employs them creatively to flesh out the various characters as she tells us the story.  When we first meet King Arthur, she puts the upturned bowl on her head and it becomes his crown; later the plate becomes Sir Gawain’s shield, and later still her own mirror when she’s Sir Bertilak’s wife.  In one particularly creative piece of staging, she held the plate above her head as a solar disc and moved it back and forth in an arc to signify the passing of days.  The white sheet deserves special mention – it’s used as a cloak, then held above her head as a wimple, but the most imaginative use is when she gathers the middle of the sheet into a ball, which she holds above her hand while the remaining folds hang down towards the floor.  Instantly, she’s created a person, another character that she can interact with.  Done so deftly that we could almost see his features as the couple talked.

Cannon appears in front of us in an ankle-length grey dress, her long hair greyed-up too, making her seem older than her actual years.  She’s Scottish, with her own rich Edinburgh accent – though she does all the characters in the legend, and so she switches from that to King Arthur’s elegant RP and the honeyed tones of Gawain, then to the gruff northern vowels of the Green Knight and later Sir Bertilak.  She can sing beautifully, too.   Breaks and time-shifts in the story were signified by a cappella renditions of ‘In Cuckoooo’ (which sounded like a traditional English folk song) or just by a series of softly rendered ululations.

Cannon is a hugely accomplished storyteller.  She engages with her audience totally, making constant eye contact and emphasising each point with expressive hand and arm movements.  She’ll stoop, leaning in towards us to give us some detail, then she pulls herself up to her full height and she’s a commanding presence as she switches seamlessly into another character.

The basic story is that the gigantic Green Knight arrives at Camelot during the Christmas festivities, carrying a branch of holly – and an axe …      Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, accepts a challenge – to chop off the Knight’s head, in exchange for the same treatment himself, exactly one year later, at The Green Chapel.

The Green Knight is duly decapitated, but he simply picks up his head and leaves the castle.

Gawain has a year before his own test is due, but a year passes quickly – weeks become months, one season follows another, and all too soon it’s time – what a profound analogy for life this legend gives us …

So Gawain sets off to search for the Green Chapel, and after many adventures (too many to recount, the story says) he arrives at a castle on Christmas Eve.  He’s hosted by Sir Bertilak, whose castle this is, and informed that the Chapel is actually very near.   There are three days to go before his meeting with the Green Knight, and on each morning Sir Bertilak’s wife (remember her?) attempts to seduce Gawain while her husband is away hunting.

This bit is beautifully done – Debbie Cannon holds the perfect green apple in both hands, caressing it like Gawain’s head, right in front of her lips, and plants a kiss on its shining surface.  Three times she does this, although Gawain resists her charms every time, and on the third occasion she gives him, from beneath her gown, a green silk belt to wrap around his waist, to ‘keep him from harm’ – “It smells of me, and it’s warm from my body …”

Phew – steamy stuff. Gawain’s eyes are popping, but he keeps his gaze on the image of The Virgin on his shield, and manages to resist temptation.

Finally Gawain meets the Green Knight, and is spared his own decapitation (though he suffers a small nick from the axe) because the Knight is actually (of course) Sir Bertilak in disguise.   Gawain survives because, although he’d been tempted by the wife, he’d remained chaste, and kept both of their honour intact.   As Bertilak tells him, “My wife was the real test, not the axe – you won this challenge in the bedroom, not on the battlefield.”

But Gawain is a bit of a prig, at least to my mind.   He can’t see that he’s actually been given a great gift – all he can see is that he’s been tricked by the woman – “Like Adam and Eve – men manipulated by cunning vipers!”

There’s one glaring inconsistency in this telling – not that it detracts from the enjoyment one jot.  Debbie Cannon is very convincing as the wife when she tells us of her lust for the seemingly irresistible Gawain, waiting till her husband is absent to creep to his chamber – at the very start she’d told us that she was destined for better things, so maybe she’d also hoped that Gawain would carry her off to Camelot.   But – Sir Bertilak tells Gawain that it was he himself who’d ordered his wife to tempt the knight, to set up the test of the knight’s honour.

Can’t be both … but then maybe this is the first time that the wife has been given the opportunity to tell it how it actually was.

Remember, too, that a lot of these legends (like the stories in The Bible) were cobbled together from various sources, by sometimes a number of writers. This one draws on Welsh, Irish and English stories, as well as the French Chivalric tradition.

It was quite a small audience at The Poets – small in number but very enthusiastic and appreciative.   Perhaps you think a telling of an early English legend wouldn’t be exciting; but you’d be wrong.   Debbie Cannon is not just an expert on this material, she’s a consummate performer.   You might have noticed the rating for this show  –  at one point, the woman offers Gawain a ring, set with a precious gem.   He refused it – but I felt that we the audience had been given one too.



Strat Mastoris