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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

An Anglo-Saxonist Reviews Another Beowulf Rock Opera

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

Stage adaptations of Beowulf from 2019, 2013 and 2005. (Left to right) The Met Cloisters, A.R.T's Oberon and New York's Irish Repertory Theatre.

Glorious eye shadow, red spandex and spangles, and lots of attractive exposed dancer bodies. To say that very little of The Ninth Hour: The Beowulf Story is Beowulf, the medieval poem I have studied for years, is probably reductive and missing the point. My thirty year interest in the poem is borne of a love of many elements of the work, from the linguistics, to the historical and folkloric elements, to the poem’s unusual compositional structure and beyond. But people seem to like Beowulf because it is at once a story that celebrates and criticizes the victor and both hates and sympathizes with the villian. They also seem captured by the taboo psycho-sexual conflict that is probably more received from a memory of the 2007 film and a computer-generated Angelina Jolie than the source material. Sexual conflict, and even a bit of an Electra complex may be found, or at least read into Beowulf, but I submit that one has to do the work to cultivate those details and in this production, it seems a copy of a copy. Unfortunately the recent Met production uses Beowulf more as a canvas on which to project cliches and the echoes of drama.

An educated swathe of the public, those that attend and create live theater, have indulged in theatrical Beowulf adaptations since Seamus Heaney’s 1999, award-winning, best-selling translation of the untitled 3,182-line English poem of disputed age that exists solely in the pages of an 11th century manuscript. Heaney must be credited with shepherding Beowulf from British Literature textbooks and the halls of dusty academia and into the public consciousness. Without Google, I can count at least three feature film adaptations of Beowulf, though each of questionable merit, since the year 2000, as well as countless graphic novels and references in video games and other media that welcomes monster-slaying heroes. Thanks to Mr. Heaney, Beowulf has certainly arrived.

I have also seen three other live treatments of Beowulf, two set to music, and each, purposefully, lived up to sharing the poem’s title to a greater or lesser degree. New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre in 2005 aimed at a fully staged Beowulf, complete with large-scale puppets, masks, and muscled men heaving against oars, and Boston Poet’s Theatre’s more recent, 2015 treatment, adapted Heaney’s own translation in a more intimate scale, with multiple narrators telling a story to be heard more than seen. The American Repertory Theatre’s Oberon-produced 2013 Beowulf--A Thousand Years of Baggage, announced its intention to deviate and have fun in its title, and was a funny and enjoyable evening, although definitely enhanced by the open bar. These productions provided a wide range of live Beowulf experiences to be had and The Ninth Hour: The Beowulf Story, though it takes itself more seriously, falls closer to Oberon’s intentionally comic take by the looseness with which it handles the material. What Oberon’s production lacked in verisimilitude to the original, though, it partly made up for in humor, and again, the open bar.

The Metropolitan Museum’s The Ninth Hour: The Beowulf Story, was produced and recorded in front of a live audience sometime in the spring of 2019 and was made available online for free at the end of June. The 48-minute production was held at the Fuentidueña Chapel, a hall boasting a 13th Century Romanesque apse from a Spanish church, carefully disassembled and reconstructed in the 1940s at The Met Cloisters, the museum’s medieval satellite installation in Fort Tryon Park, way-the-hell-uptown Manhattan. The performance features a live band, six dancers, and two principal performers, who share singing duties with the instrumentalists.

The production dramatizes the opening episodes of the poem Beowulf, but only in broad strokes. The problem of Grendel and his Mother are introduced, without the trappings of a court or the presence of the Danish characters. Then a Beowulf figure arrives, defeats Grendel, and then his Mother. The plot is simple and follows the basic order of events of the poem. The story is told entirely through song, with original lyrics that touch upon discernible themes in Beowulf in a general way. The notion of the passage of time is addressed in the opening number, “Listen to the sea” and returned to at times with references to the tide. The issue of heroes writing history and the necessity to win admiration are also touched upon. The only dramatic relationship hinted at in the production is between mother and son. That relationship is expressed through the words, “We’re all that we’ve got; We’re family.”

The lyrics, in the register of American rock songs, only hint at meaning, and are often weighed down by cliche. The performers promise “a story of good and evil, hell and glory.” The Grendel figure, played by Shayfer James, informs us, “I would rather be a monster than a fool.” The Beowulf figure, played by Kate Douglas, warns us, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If it’s not Beowulf, it is also not thought provoking in the manner of well written modern music. It’s not Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchel or even Taylor Swift. The melodies are more frequently catchy or moving. James’s “Lullaby,” is one of the more dramatic numbers, sung ostensibly while Grendel is dying. Douglas’s “I Believe in Peace, but I’ll Go to War for You” sticks in the ear.

The performance itself is polished and professional, but lacks the excitement of powerful storytelling. The singers and the band are able with the material, but the dancers are not used well. At one point they move as if structurally part of a larger Grendel monster, but, at least from the perspective of the camera, not in a convincing or exciting way. The two performers (Manelich Minniefee and Zachary Eisenstat) who, in tandem, played Caliban in American Repertory Theatre’s 2014 The Tempest were continually fascinating to watch as they linked themselves together and moved with the awkward grace of a gymnast with eight limbs and two torsos. Unfortunately, as with much of the direction, it is possible to find precursors that do it better. The huddle that the performers make at the beginning of the performance, ostensibly to decide who would play which part, has become a cliched theatrical convention: these are players--they will now entertain us. It was done more effectively in Bob Fosse’s 1972 Pippin and even in Trevor Nunn’s 1979 Macbeth. By the end, even the sensual red of the spandex and vinyl and eyeshadow that hint at a sexual energy (and are the most striking element of the production) never really come to fruition.

The idea of Beowulf will continue to draw artists and audiences, but if all they understand is a notion of the masterpiece, or an already loose reconstruction of it, they will only contend with its shadow. As a Beowulf lover, I should feel lucky that my literary love is still in vogue twenty years on from Heaney’s seminal work, but during this production at least, I wished for more creativity and attention to detail.

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