Mayfest review: Beowulf

jpeg-1Ever heard Grendel sing the blues? Seen an academic transform into a dragon? Or heard Beowulf describe himself as a sexy motherfucker? BBB’s unconventional Beowulf has all of this and more, as it rattles through one of the most famous epic poems of all time. It’s a riot of musical styles and silliness, managing to stage epic battles and tender moments with equal aplomb. Using the whole space of Bristol’s Trinity Arts Centre, we get monsters and men leaping about the hall, followed by musicians and creating nothing short of mayhem.

Presented as an academic lecture on Beowulf (brandishing Seamus Heaney’s translation), BBB’s production swiftly descends into a rock-based song cycle telling the story of our eponymous hero. The talented band are as at home with the mellow ballads as with the storming numbers, although, as ever, the devil gets all the best tunes. Composer Dave Molloy offers us a nice mix of styles, although the big, brass-heavy numbers are the most fun. The band are fabulous, especially Mario Maggio on clarinet and Pete Wise on drums.

Jeremy Beck’s Grendel is excellent – cocky as he nonchalently leaps about the Trinity Centre, taunting Jason Craig’s stolid Beowulf – and having some tender moments with his monstrous mum (Jessica Jelliffe). All of the cast have lovely voices, and the close-harmony work sends shivers down the spine. The sound levels aren’t always perfect which sometimes makes it difficult to hear all of the words – the singers are often drowned out by the drums, guitars and brass. We get the gist, though, thanks to Jason Craig’s witty script. I think there’s an assumption that the audience will know the rough story, but this sprint through Beowulf is as clear as it is unsubtle. Beowulf himself has something of Blackadder‘s Lord Flashheart about him – all bravado, swagger and stupidity. He is good at ripping the arms off monsters, though, and comes with his own pair of dancing girls as back-up (Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha).

The construct, of three academics arguing about interpretations of the poem, is well done, and when the academics become part of the story it is done with a light touch. For all of its tricks and songs, at its heart this is a bunch of people telling us a story. The show touches on some deeper themes (do we create our own monsters? When is revenge OK?) but only fleetingly; mostly, what we have is riotous, raucous fun.

Beowulf is at the Trinity Arts Centre in Bristol as part of Mayfest until 19 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Mayfest website.