This show’s subtitle might threaten baggage, but New York company Banana Bag & Bodice’s raucously enjoyable riff on Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf blazes into this year’s Brighton Festival without even a trace of a hang-up. Mixing cabaret stylings with a big-band bang and a healthy dose of humour, it nonetheless stays true to the spirit of a tale that has echoed down the ages.
We meet the mighty Scandinavian warrior via three horn-rimmed academics clutching a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem. After a few funny jabs at the kind of linguistic nit-picking that sustains professorships, the library doors blow wide open as a rangy Jeremy Beck ditches his tie, sprays beer everywhere and becomes the monstrous Grendel, who – each night – butchers his way through the mead hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes.
What follows is noisy, dirty and often brilliant, as co-directors Mallory Catlett and Rod Hipskind filter the brutally beautiful compound-adjective-filled verse through the cadences of modern speech, against trombones, bass and trumpets.
The weather when I saw the show was dreadful, but the band is more than capable of drowning out a torrential downpour and howling gale. They’re matched in terms of energy by the cast, who circle the mirrored Spiegeltent – appropriately part circa-1920s Berlin club, part big top – belting out songs and spitting insults at each other when Beowulf arrives to slay Grendel and, ultimately, his mother.
It’s not always easy to hear the words, but the musical swagger tells its own story. And the grandstanding between Jason Craig’s wonderfully unlikely Beowulf (a geek with a sword) and Beck’s slacker Grendel collapses the ancient tradition of pre-fight insults – flyting – into what could be brawl on a Brooklyn street. Rick Burkhardt’s dishevelled Hrothgar growls through his songs like a down-and-out country star.
If – as I’m implying – there’s something quintessentially American about this show, it doesn’t feel wrong. Beowulf began as oral poetry, adapted to fit by whoever passed it on; respecting the text matters less with words that once only hung in the air. Throughout, the company grabs the story by the scruff of its neck and shakes it down to its essential themes of honour, vengeance, patriarchy and cultural anxieties about otherness and difference.
Sometimes, this can get a bit too knowing; Craig’s comic appearance as Beowulf manages to say more about inflated warrior codes in a male-dominated society with one clownish visual than some overly clever lyrics. But such moments are few and far between in a show that never forgets that the goal it shares with its source material is entertainment.
But it doesn’t neglect the pathos, skilfully integrating the story’s awkward third-act dragon-slaying – many re-tellings end with the dramatically neat deaths of Grendel and his mother – as a look at the difference between reading and experiencing a legendary life. Here, the memento mori of Beowulf’s final moments becomes an impassioned reminder that the poem truly comes to life in the performance – something that this intelligent and tremendously fun show demonstrates very well indeed.