It's true what they say about less being more. This superlative piece of storytelling theatre could barely be any simpler: it's just one woman, a few unremarkable chairs, and a smattering of props which she carries on in a bundle. But that's all performer Debbie Cannon needs to spirit us away, to a colourful world of knights and giants – where her character, a woman who's known both poverty and nobility, finds herself at the centre of an age-old story.
That story is of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, an Arthurian legend which many believe originates not all that far from Buxton. I confess I knew little of this particular tale; it starts with a deadly wager, and becomes a test of honour for a fresh-faced young knight. But Cannon's self-penned adaptation is easy to understand. Her storytelling is bright and clear, and she carefully husbands the legend's secrets, surprising me with its twist ending while dropping enough hints to make me feel I should really have known what was coming all along.
The writing is filled with beautiful, evocative turns of phrase, at times painting vivid pictures and at times exploring delicate emotions. There's a hint of melancholy about the passage of time, and the way that all things – a year, a life or a kingdom – must eventually come to an end. But there's an earthiness to it as well, the scent of mud and blood and sweat, a reminder that for all its courtly chivalry this tale is very much rooted in the land.
The physical performance is impressive too. Our narrator begins by telling us she's growing old – but she becomes young and playful as she recalls her story, drawing us into the excitement of love or the joy of festivities at Arthur's court. An apple – that symbol of temptation – stands in for Gawain, and Cannon cradles and caresses it as tenderly as any lover ever could. And that bundle of props is deployed with versatility and humour, a tray becoming a shield, a bowl Arthur's crown.
There is, it must be said, something a little uncomfortable about many of the Camelot legends: a kind of idealised misogyny, where virtuous knights are forever corrupted by wickedly seductive women. Cannon doesn't airbrush that part of the story, but she does in a sense reclaim it. Yes, our narrator sets out to tempt Gawain; and this is ultimately his story, not hers. But she has some agency, and she enjoys what she does, and we do get to hear and understand her.
And I, too, enjoyed being seduced by Cannon's performance – captured by her exceptional stage presence, beguiled by her well-crafted words. Green Knight is a masterful hour of solo theatre, and an accessible, enjoyable way to learn a famous mediaeval story. Make it your quest to see it.