The knight stories of medieval literature are not known for their portrayal of women. From the meek damsel to the evil temptress, women in medieval popular literature tend to act as plot devices or ornaments to a scene, nothing more than one of the many splendours in a nobleman’s hall, comparable to his bountiful food and fine jewellery. Though some argue that the genre of medieval popular literature has a uniquely active role for women—for it’s time—this has to be in contrast to all of the nameless, voiceless, and action-less women that populate its scenes. Actress and medieval scholar Debbie Cannon aims to fix that. Rewriting the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cannon tells the story of King Arthur’s knight from the point of view of the major female character, the nameless wife of Sir Gawain’s host.
In the original poem, Gawain is sent on a quest to find the Green Knight in order to repay him a debt. On the way, he finds a wondrous castle, whose jovial lord and beautiful lady offer to take Gawain in. While there, the lord of the castle goes hunting every day, while the lady tempts Gawain in his bedchamber, testing his chivalry by forcing him to treat her kindly without crossing the line into adultery. In Green Knight, Cannon becomes this lady, explaining her infatuation with Gawain and her pride in her own beauty. Instead of a trial for the gallant knight to undergo, the character is transformed into a bright, beautiful, and strong-minded woman. The story is told from the perspective of the woman when she has aged, looking back on this time when she was young and striking. About to join a convent after the death of her husband, her story is simultaneously a commentary on the role of women after they have been both maiden and mother.
Cannon’s story is powerful and moving, and her choices in building her character show deep knowledge and understanding of the original poem. It is impressive that she contradicts nothing in the original story when making this character as relatable and recognisably modern in her emotions as she does. Her changes between her older and younger self are clear and poignant, as the naiveté can be seen leaving her face as she changes expression from wonder into wisdom. She also does an impressive job of not letting the audience feel the absence of any of the other characters, though many of the scenes require imagining other characters being there as she switches between voices. Instead of attempting to actually become each character, it is clear that Cannon is acting as the lady voicing the other characters, a clever device that adds some humorous irony to many of the lines. As the lady voices things Gawain has said, the audience can see her teasing him and his firmly-held ideas of his masculinity. This nuance is done effectively and professionally, and Cannon should be commended for the skill it shows.
However, the props used throughout the show do not carry the same weight. Many of them, from a small drum to a spoon on a ribbon, do not have any obvious purpose. As Cannon toys with them, the audience can only wonder what the character is thinking. There is some idea that they are just ordinary objects the older woman is carrying and can be taken as glimpses into her life, but the way she uses some of them implies that she is imagining they are objects in the past. However, the audience is not let into her mind; the drum remains a drum, the spoon remains a spoon. Even the green apple that is used to symbolise Gawain is an odd choice. There are moments when she is crouched over the tiny apple, towering over it like a giant as we imagine that it is instead a man. There is some sense in which this is interesting, as the lady is seen to be so much more powerful than him and commanding over him. However, for the most part it is just odd, and sometimes goes so far as to make the lady seem crazy, lost in fantastic visions of the past, in a way that did not appear intended.
It should perhaps be noted that even while Cannon gives such life and interesting backstory to the originally underwritten woman, she still does not give her a name. This could be seen as a strange lapse, but instead it feels like a poignant reminder of how privileged the audience is to be hearing this story. Central to the plot is how often this lady is forgotten simply because she is a woman, and by leaving her nameless Cannon draws constant reminder to the need for such a backstory to be written.
Green Knight is a well-written and mostly well-performed take on the medieval poem that will be interesting for anyone who has read it, or would like to.
Photo credit: Paul McGuigan