CIMF review / ‘Beowulf’ from a quintessential storyteller

Music / CIMF Concert 20: “Beowulf”. Benjamin Bagby at the Fitters Workshop, May 5. Reviewed by PHILLIP MACKENZIE

Benjamin Bagby performing ‘Beowulf,’ photo Peter Hislop

IN years gone by, many were the hapless primary school classes compelled to sit quietly while teachers read to them, in a bloodless English, of the heroic deeds of Beowulf.

Those who progressed to English literature or similar studies at university would have gained a more detailed understanding of the tale, but  few would have had the pleasure of experiencing the saga as presented so robustly by Benjamin Bagby for the Canberra International Music Festival on Saturday night.

It is an Anglo-Saxon tale of  good and evil, strength and weakness, violence and courage in which the hero, Beowulf, contends to the death with the monstrous cannibal, Grendel.

Against all predictions, Beowulf triumphs and, in doing so, restores the King and his kingdom to peace and prosperity.

It is not surprising, given the scholarly expertise of JRR Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford  and CS Lewis,  professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, to find connections  between the  Beowulf saga and  Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or the “Narnia” stories or  even, perhaps, “Star Wars” and “Games of Thrones.”

Straightforward storytelling, as distinct from stand-up comedy,  has few exponents in contemporary theatre. To be successful, it requires the performer to engage directly with the audience as narrator as well as bringing to life the wide range of characters in the tale.

To do this in a language (Old or Anglo Saxon English) unfamiliar to most of the audience is no mean feat; but Mr Bagby’s 90-minute performance, his wide range  of facial and vocal expression, with excellent surtitles and punctuated and embellished by his deft playing of the simple harp, shows how compelling and entertaining this particular art and craft can be.

Bagby is the quintessential storyteller, and his performance went a long way to transporting the audience from the cavernous Fitters Workshop to the equally vast space of the mythical mead-hall from which the saga of Beowulf originated.

In this performance he presents a selection of about one-quarter of the original saga, but it is enough to leave us wishing we could have more.

As the last notes arose from the small harp to the high roof and the lights on the troubadour faded, a profound silence descended on that Hall of the Fitters until it could no longer be contained, followed by  a thunder of clapping of hands and shouting of cheers and the stamping of feet until Bagby showed himself again to receive their acclamation.

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