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Review of Beowulf at the Unicorn Theatre

Debbie Korley as Beowulf, Beowulf at Unicorn Theatre. Photography by Graham Michael
Debbie Korley as Beowulf, Beowulf at Unicorn Theatre. Photography by Graham Michael

This stage adaptation of Beowulf, an Old English poem set in what today is Scandinavia, is a bit like a Greek tragedy, in that the prologue tells the audience what is about to unfold, before the story actually does unfold, and then the conclusion which does indeed equate to what the prologue said it would. The title character (Debbie Korley) is first-person narrator, and so the audience is only exposed to a single perspective.

I was surprised at how much of the narrative was disseminated by simple and straightforward stand-and-deliver storytelling. Chris Thorpe’s script gets quite poetic when it wants to be – not everything is in verse, but a considerable amount is. The descriptive imagery was impressive. I rather liked a line likening parting a warrior with their weapon to asking a singer to part company with their voice.

The pacing varies dependent on whether Beowulf, a heroic legend and for fifty years ruler of the Geats, a tribe of what is now southern Sweden, is reflecting on past events or is engaged in the heat of the battlefield. The latter kept happening, rather like one of those motion pictures with a lot of fighting going on. In that sense, things did get a tad repetitive, and the narrative ebbed and flowed for me, but judging by the reactions of the younger members of the audience, they generally seemed very much interested by proceedings. Their enjoyment was enhanced by some decent staging. More than one instance of plumes of fire, the heat from which could be felt even from my
vantage point in the rear stalls, had the children enthralled – and it was as good as any method of portraying an angry dragon on stage.

It’s easy to see why it works best as a children’s story these days. There is no attempt, admirably, to modernise Old English names of people or places. This is likely to have been a story passed down from generation to generation, so why alter names from the sixth century? What is distinctly modern, however, is the music. Danny Saul fulfils multiple roles as composer, performer and musical director, and the sound and music he has created for this production is suitably atmospheric.

Particularly in the second half, pumping beats, disco-esque to start with but gradually shifting to a classic rock feel, pump up not only Beowulf but the audience for battle. It was commensurate with the sort of aggression and confrontation needed to win the conflicts Beowulf must face.

The lighting (Richard Williamson), too, is brilliantly designed, almost constantly changing with the ever-altering mood of the play and the fluidity of its plot. The sound (David Glover) was glorious, allowing Debbie Korley to speak to the audience rather than yell, with most if not all of the louder sections performed with the aid of a microphone. Okay, there was a substantial amount of projection going on towards the end, but it was still not overly loud, and neither was any of the music. The lighting created a gig-like environment in the most dramatically intense scene, which won’t appeal to everyone, but I get the analogy: Beowulf in the twenty-first century performs to the gallery as Beowulf in the sixth would have performed for his subjects.

The production has the balance right between retaining a feel for how the story would have been told so very long ago whilst putting in enough elements to appeal thoroughly to contemporary audiences. Pleasingly, no prior knowledge of the legendary story is required to comprehend proceedings in this enlightening and entertaining production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Beowulf, all-conquering monster-slayer, rock star, hero, looks back over a life and sees what? Bravery? Violence? Victory? Is there only one way to be a leader? Or is another world possible…?

Set to an immersive metal and electro-infused live soundtrack, Chris Thorpe’s (Victory Condition at Royal Court) new version of this seminal text is performed by one actor recounting Beowulf’s dark, bloody and difficult journey as he prepares for battle one last time.

Unicorn Theatre 147 Tooley Street London SE1 2HZ
BEOWULF 1st October – 5th November 2017


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