Writer: Julian Glover, adapted from translations by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
All the reference books and online encyclopaedias will tell you that Beowulf is the earliest written poem of its kind in Old English – but that belies its true origin and its true nature. The legend of the Gael warrior who comes to the aid of the Danes by vanquishing the demons attacking them may have been written down at some stage, but this is a story that was made centuries before to be told orally, to be performed to an audience hungry for tales of far away lands, of dragons and blood-drenched valour. This is the story that laid the foundations for a tradition of fantasy storytelling that persists today, from JRR Tolkien to George RR Martin.
Actor Julian Glover – himself no stranger to fantasy, with Doctor Who, Star Wars and Game of Thrones credits peppering his extensive CV – has been performing a one-man performance of Beowulf for over thirty years. Considerably abridging the original’s 3,000-plus lines into an hour and a half, Glover’s first words on stage are “Hear. Listen!” For this is a fantasy tale that needs no CGI, no trickery to enchant us – just an expert narrator, in contemporary dress, drawing us in with the power and beauty of imaginative language. Occasional forays into Old English punctuate the narrative, drawing us further into a sense of time and place without ever distracting from the story.
The candle-lit timbers and gilded stage backdrop of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse make for an eerily appropriate substitute for a Danish drinking hall – Heorot in the heart of Southwark. Glover’s delivery brings to life many of the characters in the epic tale, imbuing each with a distinct personality and with a rich vein of humour. Tales of the Herculean warrior’s previous exploits are artfully undercut with the inevitable sarcasm of one doubter – a man who, such as is the way of all such stories, comes to respect Beowulf before the story’s end. Even as the foul demon Grendel and his mother attack the hall of Heorot and inflict bloody devastation, Glover gives pause for us to catch breath, to laugh at an absurd image, before we are flung back into the heart of battle.
With the mother and son vanquished and Beowulf returned to the Royal House of the Waymundings, over which he rules for half a century, there is a sense of a new generation taking over. When, fifty years after defeating Grendel, a dragon lays claim to Beowulf’s amassed treasures, the warrior requires the assistance of Wiglaf, last Heir of the House, to remain victorious. And, for one special performance, as King Beowulf is lain to rest, a new voice takes up the story.
For after several decades of regaling the tale of Beowulf, of Grendel and his mother, and the Houses of Scyldings and Waymundings, Julian Glover is passing on the oral tradition to his son, actor Jamie Glover. In this, his final performance, Glover Senior cedes the stage to his son, who will continue the tradition. Just as the oral storytellers of medieval times passed their stories on, Beowulf passes into different hands, and a performer who, on the short time on stage in this performance, will infuse the story with his own passion and personality.