Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe 21 New Globe Walk Bankside SE1 9DT 24 May 2015.
Runs 1hr 30min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden
A rare and celebratory occasion.
It could be pure Hollywood: heroic outsider saves community from depredations by a monster, culminating in terrific fight. There has to be a sequel, for which he’ll be back. Second time round, the stakes are raised; the story enters an underwater fantasy-land. This time it’s personal.
The monster Grendel defeated, his mother takes on the warrior Beowulf. Yet this time the conflict doesn’t seem cumulative. There’s still the climactic adventure to come, bringing emotional complications; elsewhere and half-a-century on, the final victory also brings the hero’s death.
A pattern of epic is expressed in this anonymous poem from some time in the centuries before the Norman Conquest, written in early English and set in Scandinavia. What would be a transient confusion of flashing imagery and effects in modern cinema is presented through the strength of language, structured in Old English, with its pattern of strong and unaccented syllables, through alliteration, rather than rhyme, within rather than across lines.
At the culmination of a distinguished acting career, during which he has performed his “edition” of the poem over 30 years, Julian Glover knows exactly how to use the alliterative repetition to strengthen the story not stifle it with predictable aural recurrence. The experience of an actor well-versed in Shakespeare brings a rich tonal variety, including lightness and flexibility, even moments of helpful, for a modern audience possibly necessary, humour alongside well-paced tension and emotional climaxes in the battle-scenes.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse provides a perfect platform, with Glover chatting to audience members before mounting the stage as the bard reciting (from memory), taking the audience imaginatively into the world of mead-halls, monsters and mighty heroes. Occasional lines in Old English (their meaning always made clear) provide a thrilling – piercing – sense of authenticity.
Finally, Glover lays the huge sword, his sole prop, on a seat, leaving the stage as Beowulf dies. It is Julian’s last performance. But, as he exits, another figure clambers onstage; his son, Jamie, up from The Rehearsal in Chichester for this performance, to complete the tale and continue the poem’s oral journey, begun over a millennium ago.
Performers: Julian Glover, Jamie Glover.