Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Beowulf is now regarded as an inaccessible academic text. This show distills it to its essence, a rollicking, good story, poking fun at academic study with ingenious theatre and rousing music
Beowulf is often regarded as an inaccessible academic text in archaic English and left on the shelf to gather dust. This rollicking musical adaptation by Banana, Bag and Bodice pull it off the shelf, shake off the dust and breathe new life into the Anglo- Saxon epic about the hero Beowulf who turns up to dispel the monster Grendel who has been murdering the king’s warriors.
A bespectacled, earnest looking student, clutching a battered copy of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, deconstructs the text and interprets its importance, even as all around her the characters jump off the page and assume larger than life form. The monster, Grendel, is a checky shirted beer lout swilling beer, more misunderstood rascal with mummy issues than monster. And then there’s Beowulf who enters the fray, sauntering down the aisle, clad in swashbuckling fur and leathers, a man fully aware of his own strength but not the brightest. There’s laughs aplenty along with more serious points being made along the way about the nature of violence and masculinity as well as the all too-easy lazy categorising of people into good or evil.
The Dans Paleis tent makes a wonderful theatre in the round for this performance lending it something of the Bavarian beertent or Scandanavian great hall and putting story telling back centrestage. And the company make full use of the space with the action popping up all over the place. There are severed limbs, blood baths, a bit of arm wrestling and blood and gore, as well as strong ensemble acting and music to tell the tale.
The six piece band are on stage throughout or marching round the tent. The combination of wind section, double bass play music that is somewhere between Hans Eisler and oompah band in a gloriously cacaphonous punk, techno blast. Often discordant and using amounts of feedback, the music plays a vital part in the show. The cast provide main and backing vocals. At times, a number of the songs were let down by the vocal accompaniment, Beowulf, in particular, was frequently atonal and even off key.
In the end, the production does much of what it sets out to do, taking away the academic overlay and restoring to us what is a rousingly good story. However, in doing so, they reduce it to something less than it is, losing layers of complexity and meaning. Nonetheless, the originality and rumbustiousness of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage make it a memorable theatrical experience – with a lot of fun to be had along the way.