Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beowulf - The Hub, Edinburgh, 22 August 2007

This was one of a series of performances by Benjamin Bagby in which he recites the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (strictly speaking just the most famous segment which is roughly the first third of the full text, but still over a thousand lines) while accompanying himself on a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon harp (rather like a six-string lyre). The recitation (in Old English with English surtitles) fell into a strange middle ground between speech and song which was the fruit of much research into what can be discovered or inferred of Anglo-Saxon story-telling technique. Bagby makes the point in his programme note that when he listened to recordings by experts on Old English verse they all seemed to emphasise the metre in a heavy-handed, leaden kind of way, whereas what he has tried to do is keep the metre always present in the listener's mind without its dominating the presentation. That seems to me analogous to Peter Hall's approach to the speaking of Shakespearean verse, where you never for a moment treat it as prose, and you use the rhythm and the metre as springboards for your speaking of the lines, but you're not plodding through metrical feet, you're speaking English while remembering it's verse. I mean, what would you think of an actor whose Hamlet spoke like "To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUESTion"? Yet it's impossible to speak the line correctly without awareness that it's an iambic pentameter. Well, that's where we recently were with Anglo-Saxon recitation. I can happily report that Benjamin Bagby lived up to his own principles and gave us a wonderfully flexible performance where rhythm and alliteration were evident rather than obvious.

It's a great story, of course, of a Danish king Hrothgar whose new mead-hall (Heorot) is receiving nightly visits from the local lake monster Grendel (a curmudgeon who is fed up with the noise of partying, basically). Grendel turns the place into a House of Blue Leaves every night. Then one day, a plucky Geat (or Goth, or what we would call a Swede) by the name of Beowulf turns up. He is immensely strong and competent, and has come with a small band to help out Hrothgar. He and his band bed down in the mead-hall overnight; Grendel turns up and eats one of the party without preamble before turning his attention to Beowulf. The latter, however, uses his famously powerful grip to put an armlock on Grendel, and after much thrashing about Grendel pulls free leaving his arm behind, before crawling off to his lake to bleed to death. Beowulf nails the arm up on the wall of Heorot (ewwww) and is duly rewarded with tons of stuff plus eternal kingly gratitude. Plus a sort of life insurance payout for the family of the guy who got eaten. Of course, there's more to it: the full thing has all kinds of asides on family history, rivalry between heroic types, funerals, etc., as well as a good line in description.

I thought when I booked it that this Official Festival event seemed to rise to the heights of Fringe Festival weirdness. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon harp was surreal, sounding very much like a banjo (imagine early Peggy Seeger, not Bela Fleck). Sometimes it's hard to tell where the cutting edges of Apollonian culture and Dionysian culture meet. But one of the great joys of Edinburgh in August is that wherever it is, chances are it's in Edinburgh somewhere.


At 23 August, 2007 17:44, Blogger Udge said...

Permit me to put in a plug for the opposition: John Gardner's Grendel.

"Poor Grendel's had an accident. So may you all."

On Dale's recommendation, I've just bought the Seamus Heaney translation, and will be reading it this Autumn (what, don't you plan your books in advance?)


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