First, full disclosure. I have various dogs of various sizes in this fight. I am by training a scholar of Old English Literature. I have published a number of academic articles on Old English poetry, at times touching on Beowulf. Some years ago I completed (although I wouldn’t call it “finished”) a verse translation of Beowulf. And, perhaps the most biasing fact: I briefly tutored Hrothgar (David Ley) in his Old English pronunciation for this production.
I confess, after reading hints about Beowulf the King in the weeks leading up to opening night, I returned in my mind again and again to Richard Bentley’s on-target criticism of Pope’s “translation” of Homer’s Iliad: “It’s a very pretty poem Mr. Pope, but you must not call it ‘Homer’.” I worried that my reaction to the play would be similar or worse.
I’m very happy to report that Beowulf the King is a very pretty play, and, although it is very different from the poem in so many ways, it is perfectly appropriately titled. This play is not the Old English poem, but it is certainly a Beowulf for our time.
There, with the academic geekery out of the way, we proceed to the play (and strive to avoid spoilers) . . .
I don’t think I’m giving much away if I mention that the play opens, after a brief musical overture(more about that later), in Old English. Hrothgar (David Ley) strides onto the stage and declaims the first three lines of the poem and then steps aside to be the chorus to a series of battle scenes which effectively condense the genealogies which open the poem into an exciting little pill for the audience to swallow. The scene is set: battle, kingship and honour in Denmark. But, of course, something is rotten in Hrothgar’s kingdom . . .
But, I don’t want to just paraphrase the play or the poem; I’d rather you went to the play and read the poem (in translation, I expect). I’ll comment on things which struck me about the play — problems confronted and solved, felicitous interpretations and satisfying expansions and interpolations.
Grendel (Darren Paul) speaks. An obvious departure from the poem, Grendel’s monologues transform the monster from being a mute threat of the outside world he would be without speech into something more like the poem’s dark alternate of Beowulf — in the poem, many of the same words are used to describe both the “hero” and the “monster”. Having Grendel speak forces the investigation of his motivation – only hinted at in the poem – and also allows investigation of religion in a society in religious transition – again, only hinted at in the poem. The speaking Grendel must make us think of John Gardner’s short novel Grendel – was it an influence on the play or are the similarities the result of drawing on the same source? And, the gorilla in the mead-hall is Caliban, the cursed wildman of The Tempest, like Grendel, the son of a cursed mother. Darren Paul’s Grendel in another life could go toe to toe with Prospero.
Another interesting and fundamental addition is the curse Grendel’s Mother (Amber Borotsik) places on Beowulf (Sheldon Elter) just before her death. Beowulf forevermore will feel a mother’s pain at the loss of her son whenever he kills. This burden explains the half-century of peace (left unexplained in the poem) the Geats enjoy under Beowulf’s rule. Beowulf’s struggle to maintain peace – completely absent from the poem, but darn interesting in the play – dominates Act Two and provides an interesting twist at the very end. In the poem, Beowulf’s retainers (except for one), turn cowardly, following his orders to stay out of the fight with the dragon although honour would require them to rush in to his defence. In the play, the cowardly abandonment is more than just leaving Beowulf to fight alone. The real abandonment is the Geats’ return to warfare after their king’s death. Beowulf the King argues that easy cowardice is to do battle, while actual heroism is to take the difficult road of making peace.
Some things that concerned me anticipating the play:
All those fights!
I’d read that each of the six actors had at least five death scenes, but I was pretty sure there aren’t anything like thirty deaths described in the poem. I couldn’t help but expect a whole lot of gratuitous fighting, but . . .
. . . the fights are dramaturgically functional things, not extraneous at all. They make connections for the audience between characters and between narrative elements. They are actually narrative bridges in dance. When one considers the battles mentioned in passing in the poem, one of which – the Frisian war — is expanded to a vitally important scene of Beowulf’s character development, thirty-some deaths seem a low figure. I came dreading a silly blood-bath but was given a stylized battle-dance vitally necessary to the structure and message of the play.
When considering a staging of Beowulf it’s hard to imagine what will be done with the monsters. Grendel and his Mother are the least of the problem — they’re basically human and imaginative costumes take care of them. The Dragon is the obvious challenge, but when I heard that Beowulf’s swimming match with Breca (Bryan Web) was going to be staged, I thought “that’s it. It can’t be done.”
But, they did it! and it is magnificently done! I’ll say nothing more than the swimming match and the underwater fight with the monsters is a little dramaturgical tour de force worth the price of admission (okay, I had comps, but still) in itself.
The play, like the poem, ends with the dragon fight. The dragon (David Ley, in the biggest mask in theatre history) also speaks, unlike in the poem, but it is so right! And again, the representation of the dragon is brilliant, his paws and claws ingeniously so!
But, the dragon’s fire . . .
Somehow it just doesn’t quite do it. The smoke seems to be well represented/suggested by the two fabric flags/banners at each side of the dragon, but the lights and sound don’t quite have the lethal materiality the dragon’s flaming breath might need. But, that shortcoming is minor in what is a stunning execution of what would seem a staging impossibility.
The music by Joel Crichton struck me as a very appropriate blending of faux-Wagner and urban techno-something-or-other. The beatboxing in the overture gave the exactly right hint of gangsta which was picked up in the touches of inner-city gang in the design of set and costume. There are Jets and Sharks in the wings. I’ve long thought that the best modern analogy to the culture of war, honour and allegiance of Beowulf is the twentieth-century urban youth gang. I was pleased to see the analogy drawn in the play.
Beowulf The King really is, despite the rough edges of a preview performance (and the rough edges of a preview audience) a quite startlingly good and fascinating grapple with the monster that is Beowulf.
Finally, I strongly recommend Anna Dow’s brief essay “Whose Side Are You On, Anyway” on pages 26 and 27 of the program. It succinctly presents some difficulties of the poem and is very insightful about the play. As well, the “Playwright’s Notes” by Blake William Turner on page 9 contain a few gems.