Friday, July 17, 2015


Simon Armitage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In the footsteps of last year's splendid Sir Gawain. Simon Armitage now follows the legendary 'once and future king' on his travels from Carlisle to Avalon, by way of Sandwich, Soissons, Metz and Milan.
He's joined on the candle-lit stage by two actors: David Birrell who's the voice of Arthur, and Polly Frame who does almost everyone else, from Emperor to Philosopher to arch-villain Mordred. Armitage narrates laconically, and Paul Johnson plays a remarkable range of arcane musical instruments – gongs, singing bowls, pipes and drums. There's also a pair of coconut shells … a clue that tongues are in cheeks for at least some of the story.
Scholars call this anonymous 14th century text the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and Armitage's carefully crafted modern version retains that medieval device to excellent effect. There's a good deal of feasting - “extravagant cuisine” - and plenty of gory battles. Two graphic dreams, ripe for interpretation, are central to the narrative: a fight with dragon and bear, and a wood full of wolves.
The writing is richly textured, and the performance full of movement and music, both verbal and instrumental. As with Julian Glover's recent Beowulf, the combination of this Jacobean space and heroic epic fireside tales is a potent entertainment, even in these days of CGI packed action movies.

The King brought Excalibur crashing down,
shearing off cleanly the corner piece of his shield
and slashing a six-inch wound to his shoulder,
spattering his chain mail with shimmering scarlet blood.
He shuddered and shook, shrank back just a little,
but then shockingly and sharply in his shining armour
the felon struck forcefully with his fine sword,
slicing through the rib plates to our Sovereign’s side;
through hauberk and heavy armour he opened him up
with a wound to his flesh half a foot wide.

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