What! A puissant female Beowulf? A torchlit procession? A live longship bewildering down the nave? Epic is the only epithet. And you’ve missed it.
What! One of the oldest words in our language. An expletive ejaculation often used in medieval verse to quell the crowd and command attention.
It’s also the opening word of this epic production by aptly-named theatre company Proper Job. In this strange era of Tik Tok, AI and attention-span sapping memes that mean less and less the more you think about them, this was a riveting reminder of what human creativity and collaboration can do that AI can’t.
You can keep your virtual reality, CGI and the rest. This was a full-on sensory overload. From the gathering in Byram Arcade around a corpse atop a funeral pyre, a choir on the balconies, a folk-infused drone and drum ambience, to the torchlit march to the parish church set out like a mead-hall to the explosion of verse and song which began the piece.
The message was clear: You are under attack, but aren’t sure from what.
A postmodern Beowulf: eclectic and electrifying
For an hour an a half this thousand-year-old poem was transformed into a mind-blowing piece of immersive theatre by a company combining professionals and local (highly skilled and drilled) amateurs.
Multi-media? Operatic singers, shadow puppetry, a full choir, music blending English folk, South Asian, Japanese, hip-hop, rap and, seeing as we’re here, the Huddersfield Parish Church organ. Yessirree, Sue-Ellen, multi-culturalism works and it’s magnificent.
I do feel sorry for theatre performers these days. Gone are the days when local theatricals might have involved a lot of standing around and the second lead bounding on midway through Act 1 and asking “Anyone for tennis?” This cast ran, rowed, fought, dived, thrashed and balanced on piles of boxes that made this viewer fear for their safety.
There isn’t a single dead spot in the piece. Even in the post-Grendel sections where the original oral tradition tacked stories onto stories to fill out those long winter nights in mead-halls, the athletic staging created a dramatic impetus leading up to the emotional and structural climax of Beowulf’s funeral.
As the heroine was carried out to the thunderous harmonic accompaniment of the organ and processing orchestra, audience members were on their feet.
‘They have seen my strength for themselves … ’
The production is all the more impressive having been so collaboratively produced. The text had sections written by Ian McMillan, Michelle Scally-Clarke, Franc Chamberlain and Joel Slimmy, a Huddersfield rapper and poet. Their fragments were brought together by Chris O’Connor.
Charlotte Barnes, playing Beowulf, managed to channel Beyonce and Jean-Claude van Damme and had that elusive presence where she could command the stage simply by standing still
In fact, the whole reveal of Beowulf as a woman, (all the publicity features a menacing looking Howard Jacobs, the composer and musician), felt seamless. The synergic power of the whole piece and the preceding sequence where a whole longship had sailed up and down the nave, including a storm (!), meant that by that time it simply didn’t matter. If it moves like Beowulf, fights like Beowulf and does a death-scene like Beowulf, it’s a Beowulf and she’ll give wannabe culture warriors the same short shrift she gave Grendel. So there.
As a critic, I have to try and find points of weakness, but the only point at which the mood of awe slackened for a moment was when Grendel was revealed as a very large puppet. Then again, they have the same problem in Godzilla movies. Plus, it was a great puppet and fought convincingly. There’s only so much you can do with noises off, plus the story demands its arm and shoulder get cut off – it did.
If you’d like to see it, you’re too late. It’s sold out. Get on some mailing lists and support local culture. It’ll blow your head off.