“Mostly I want people to enjoy a feast of language, imagery, story, and the power of the actor to incite the imagination.”
By Bill Marx
Beowulf has been dramatized/filmed a number of times, most recently in these parts by way of a 2013 rock version by Dave Malloy that converted the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon stage into “a 21st century mead hall in [a] passionate retelling of the Old English epic poem. Watch as Beowulf sings, struts and slashes his way through a thousand years of literary scholarship, revealing the raw and rowdy SongPlay within.” And in 2007 there was director Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s live-action-fused-with animation version in which Grendel’s mother turned out to be a barely clad Angelina Jolie. (Note: Has anyone thought of making a stage version out of John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, a powerful, existentialist retelling of the yarn from the outcast creature’s point of view?)
The Poets’ Theatre’s new version of Beowulf (at the Cambridge Arts Center, December 10 through 20), won’t have Jolie, and chances are good that heavy metal rock riffs will be scarce. What the company will have—and it is worth far more than a curvaceous Hollywood star or headbangers—is the astonishing verse translation of the epic by Seamus Heaney. In addition, literary director David Gullette has keyed his stage adaptation into the holidays, with the family firmly in mind: “Feast on food, drink, music, dancing, juggling, viking combat, and most importantly the exuberant and intoxicating poetry of this magical story.” I sent a few questions via email to Gullette, director Benjamin Evett, and musical director Jay Mobley. I asked about the suitability of a yarn about monster-slaying during the Xmas season, the depiction of the monsters, and the difficulties Heaney’s rich language presents to the performers (the cast includes Gullette, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Amanda Gann).
Arts Fuse: Beowulf, even in Seamus Heaney’s magnificent verse translation, does not strike me as festive entertainment. Why mount a stage version of an epic poem about warrior values now?
Benjamin Evett: First, we want to celebrate Seamus. He was a friend of The Poets’ Theatre in its earlier incarnation, and we love the idea of celebrating his beautiful language in Cambridge. As for the story, I think it is very well suited to the season, and surprisingly festive. This time of year is all about the celebration of tradition—our history, our past, our childhood—as we then turn to look into the future. In the same way that Revels, or the Messiah, captures something precious to us, I think this story of heroism, honor, and rich rewards connects us to our past and to the season. And it is festive—it’s got battles, feasts, boasts, and celebration, and even though it ends with the death of our hero, it looks forward to his immortality as the greatest of his people.
David Gullette: It’s not just an epic poem: the characters are real and with emotions that don’t always have to do with war as such. And the poetry, as rendered by Heaney, has, at times, richness, grace, drama, and lyric force that make it worth attending to.
AF: Talk about your approach to staging the piece—how will setting it “at a solstice feast in a modern Medieval Mead Hall, [where] the audience will enjoy authentic food and drink, along with live music, juggling, magic, and real Viking combat” contribute to the theatricalization?
Evett: Beowulf arose sometime in the 8th to 11th century, and most scholars agree that it was a written version of an oral poem that was sung in mead halls around the Anglo-Saxon world. So we wanted to bring the poem back to its roots within the festival at a lord’s castle. The mead hall atmosphere, which I’ve taken to calling “Viking Cabaret,” will, I hope, create an immersive environment in which people can let down their guard and open themselves to a kind of storytelling that is fanciful, fun, and really allows the images and events of the tale to come alive through the language of the piece, activated and enhanced by the performative skill of the actors and musicians.
Gullette: Epic poetry recited by highly trained poets, accompanied by musicians, and surrounded by people eating and drinking was for many centuries what “entertainment” consisted of for many people.
AF: What is the inspiration for the production’s music? Modern, ancient, a mix?
Evett: The music will be a mixture of live music—guitar, violin, found-sound percussion, and electronic (we think!)
Jay Mobley: The music is largely improvised, and is based on several folk traditions, some of which are very ancient, and some of which are more recent. The violin is playing a similar role to what a Hardanger fiddle (a Scandinavian fiddle with many sympathetic strings) would play in traditional Norwegian music, but the guitar is adding in drone sounds that the modern violin does not have. We also incorporate elements of other traditions, including ancient Middle Eastern music, Scottish strathspey, and modern folk. The found-sound elements of the soundscape are in the same vein as some modern ambient musicians and performers with theatrical sensibilities, such as Tom Waits.
AF: Heaney in his introduction talks about “the slightly cardboard effect, which the word ‘monster’ tends to introduce.” How do you deal with the creatures that Beowulf tackles? The stage can’t depend on the special effects magic that movies draw on.
Evett: As the poet says, “Words, words, words.” Most importantly, Heaney gives us incredibly evocative language describing the effect of the monsters, though they themselves are scarcely described. Words like “wound slurry” and “bone-lappings” capture the visceral and gruesome power of these creatures, which is almost all we need to create an image in our minds of what they are. In the theatrical setting, though, we are able to add our wonderful chorus, which is trained and developed through our partnership with Liars & Believers, who don’t depict the creatures in a literal sense, but use movement to evoke and intensify in the physical space the action of the language.
Gullette: We allow the language to conjure up the horror the “monster” represents. And our dancers shadow and mimic and battle and cringe before creatures that can’t be seen, but that haunt the human mind.
AF: What are the challenges that the production presents to the actors? Are there difficulties in Heaney’s language—lyrical as it is—that are particularly thorny? Will the performances be stylized?
Evett: David can perhaps answer this better than me, but yes, there are challenges. The language of the piece is highly stylized—there is great formality to much of the verse—both in terms of the genre itself and the world it describes. And it is necessary that the physical language of the performers harmonizes with the verbal language—so yes, there is definitely an element of stylization. The trick is to find a clarity and simplicity to both these aspects, so that it doesn’t become ponderous and overblown. It wants to be vigorous and clear, but with a sense of ease and enough lightness and variation to keep it palatable.
Gullette: Heaney’s poetry is among the verbally richest of the last hundred years of verse in English, and certainly there are times when we have to slow down to let his interwoven textures work on the ear, as in the description of Beowulf’s sword: “the keen, inlaid, worm-looped-patterned steel.” There is a jeweler’s precision to that description, and the actor must treat it as something both strange and real—that is, speak the words with a mixture of awe and belief, because he is seeing it before the mind’s eye as he speaks.
AF: Are you putting your own directorial spin on Beowulf? Heaney says that the brilliance of the epic is that ” the elevation of Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down to earth.”
Evett: My main goal as the director is to tell the story. I want people who know the story and the translation to recognize it in a fresh setting, and I want people who don’t know it to be able to connect with our heroes and villains and what happens to them. I want all of them to follow it, be moved and excited by it, and feel like they have gone on a journey. The world that we are creating, the solstice festival out of which this story explodes, for all its delights—food, drink, juggling, viking combat, music, etc.—must ultimately serve to create an environment in which the audience can receive and share in the story, and in the remarkable language with which it is told.
AF: Ideally, what would you want audiences to leave your production of Beowulf feeling and thinking?
Evett: I’ve answered this question partially already. I want people to have an experience. I want people who know this work to hear and see it come to life in a new way. I want those who are new to it to get wrapped up in this extraordinary and timeless tale, that is the basis for so many things that they already know—The Lord of the Rings, TV shows like Vikings, video games, music, so many of the tropes that are everywhere in our popular culture. Mostly I want people to enjoy a feast of language, imagery, story, and the power of the actor to incite the imagination.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.