‘Every story ends with a dragon’, we are told. We could believe this statement, but there is suggestion in our brain that it isn’t fully correct- so with the story of Beowulf. It is an epic legend about a man larger than life and stronger than all who defeats the terrorising monster Grendel, his mother and is then faced with a final struggle against a dragon in pursuit of precious treasure. Arising from the oral tradition, the tale is filled with a consciousness of its status as a story that is told, making it dramatic, and perfect for the stage.
Seth Kriebel’s adaptation allows the audience to contribute and form the story as it progresses. ‘I reach a fork in the path, shall I go into the woods? or to the cliff?’ A consensus decides toward the woods- it’s more interesting. So this continues, making watching this performance an experience of being constantly affronted with a decision: what story do I want to hear?
Kriebel is playing on the idea that stories morph, adapting to their audiences and morphing over time so that what we end up with is probably not the story that was heard 2000 years later and is probably not what will be told in 2000 years to come. Similarly, what was told on one night in Battersea Arts Centre will not be what is heard the night after. Watching fellow audience members on stage with pained faces pleading for help from their comrades draws you in to the action- it shows how the storyteller is slave to his hearers, reliant on them as there would be no story without them.
The performance is annoyingly ‘pantomime-y’ at times and the actual drama of the exciting story is sometimes swallowed up in the constant audience interaction- the point is made, but perhaps it is a little laboured. The end also lost its punch as it relentlessly alluded to the fact that what really happened can’t be known- perhaps we should have been shown and reassured that this isn’t really the point? Having said that, the audience never lost focus or the illusion that their input mattered, which is a testament to the skill of Kriebel in acknowledging and absorbing the constant inputs, not allowing them to take over completely.
Beowulf is (fittingly) a brave piece that luckily does not end in fatality. It is a different kind of theatre, which is dynamic and engaging, not allowing you to rest on your laurels but is constantly probing and demanding things of you.
Beowulf is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 31st March 2018. For more information and tickets, go to www.bac.org.uk/content/44259/whats_on/whats_on/shows/beowulf.