A clever, funny and thoroughly exhilarating take on the much-studied Old English poem. The tale of Beowulf and his battles with the monster Grendel and Grendel’s vengeful mother is brought sharply up to date, with a delightfully odd but accomplished seven-piece band whose musical language veers from Romantic lieder, Weill-esque cabaret and 1940s jazz to punk and electronica. The band were excellent.
New York-based company, Banana Bag and Bodice reclaim Beowulf from years of academic analysis and return it to the raw and rousing style of Anglo-Saxon storytelling, they scatter the action around the Spiegeltent to ensure we grasp the whole, and this adds to a feeling of the action unfolding around us, although a little more audience participation might have added to the mead-hall ambience.
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Part lecture, part mead-hall romp, Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage wants to be a mix of reverence, provocation and satire, mostly is succeeds and sometimes it’s perfectly wonderful but there were moments when the magical sword should have been taken to the script and hacked a bit out. It’s post modern pseudo-intellectual femi-Woody Allen loft hipster style with dashes of Tom Lehrer savage mock innocent wit laced with a hefty slap from Carol Braun Pasternack made me laugh out loud as often as it grated and for some reason the women in the show seemed more accomplished than the men, but then perhaps that’s part of the joke here as cultural baggage is torn asunder, lightly shredded and then chewed up and spat out with unnerving aim at our sacred cows who are then slaughtered, flenched and made into a matching Louis Vuitton travel set which is then set on fire, etc etc etc.
I was both delighted and disappointed by the show but I think it won me over in the end, it’s a high concept night delivered with flashes of brilliance and then a few shovels full of tosh, it’s a pity that a little more time wasn’t taken to add a sheen of polish to the night as it felt more like a high end fringe performance than the usual formal festival fare. The musicians were excellent, the trombonist particularly so but it seems unfair to single out one when they all worked so hard and skilfully to underpin the semi-action on stage with such musical brilliance. I thought the lyrics, that I could catch were very funny too but more often than not the male voices were let down by a lack of clarity and diction. The female singers and valedictory readers seemed to have no issues with the sound set up as they delicately and ruthlessly dissected the plot, text and themes. Often the men were lost in the wall of sound, but I got the drift and the cool twin dancers made up for it anyway. I’m not sure if this was a technical issue with the sound. There was also a very distracting loud bass track coming from the (empty) booze tent outside which should have been sorted out asap by the Spiegel Tent gang.
This was an interesting take on an old favourite of mine, although I’m not sure how much of the rest of the audience were familiar with the real epic story poem as there were some cool post modern jokes slyly slipped into the text which seemed to go over everyone’s head, or perhaps it was just the ultra subtle American way that they were delivered that this – most British of audiences – missed.
These are an interesting bunch of performers and have taken an innovate way to present our often taken for granted cultural mythological stamped earth foundations back to us as under floor heating and decking, and I applaud them for it. They are provocative in a teasing way, there’s a feeling that the work has developed from improv sessions, one or two of them are obviously very deep but they also seem to delight in showing us that deep deep down we are all very shallow.
So all in all, this show has a few flaws, most of them technical, but it does have enthusiasm and talent and chutzpah in bucket loads and that makes for an exciting fresh and memorable evenings entertainment that made me a laugh about an 8th century Anglo Saxon epic poem which can still delight in it’s endless questions of ‘meaning’ which is not such a bad thing on a damp may night in Brighton.
Event: Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage
When: Till May 15
Cost: £15/10 Tickets are available tonight for this event on the door at the venue