The Dukebox Theatre is a cosy and intimate space, perfect for this delicate, beautiful retelling of the epic tale of Beowulf. Transformed with suitcases, boxes and piles and piles of books, the little theatre becomes reminiscent of some forgotten nook at the back of an old library – and, hidden under sheeting or even inside suitcases, we soon discover a host of avid readers, their focus entirely on the stories in their books. This focus of purpose carries right through the show: the ensemble work seamlessly together, often two to a puppet, to create the full range of movement. They give each one its own unique spark of life and character and play off the narrative and music to create a show in which no individual, but the very story itself, is centre-stage.
Nothing is overdone, and nothing in this piece feels forced or harsh, which is a true credit to the talented puppeteers. Grendel and his mother are really very scary with their juddering, monstrous movements; great sadness is shown in the old king with a mastery of stillness and small movement that only the greatest actors understand; and the fight scenes are balletic, with a delicious sense of jeopardy. Simple touches like glitter dust that hangs in the air, or bubbles blown across the stage, immediately transport us into misty mountains or underwater grottos. Tom Dussek’s sonorous narration sweeps us up like the rolling waves that bear Beowulf’s ship across the seas (wonderfully depicted with shadow puppetry across a map of the lands) and we are happy to be taken along on this magical journey. A particularly lovely feature of this adaptation is that each character has its own style of verse and metre, which Dussek uses to inform the speech, and then embellishes with his own vocal talent.
The live music is what gives this piece that final finishing sparkle. The harp as the audience enter brings to mind Saxon mead halls and adventures to be had. The drum box is used as a march, calling people to arms, and as a nail-biting clamour to underpin fight scenes – and villainous deeds have their very own death knell to colour the mood with menace.
For all that Beowulf is a classic tale that many people know by name, not so many people out and about have read or seen the story – I will admit that I was hazy on the plot myself when I entered the theatre. Barely Human Puppets have created a piece that is accessible and understandable, that breathes life back into old characters and makes us care about them, and is a great introduction to puppetry, theatre and the oral tradition of storytelling that makes you want to see more. As the Poet of the piece says: “Some stories are true, and some mistaken – but unstopping your ears is a step worth taking.”
Beowulf is playing at The Dukebox Theatre until 22 May. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.