PoetryReviewSouth WestSpoken Word

Egil – Bike Shed, Exeter

Writer: Peter Oswald
Director: Howard Gayton
Reviewer: Ben Miller-Jarvest

Warrior, berserker, grieving father, carouser, irascible old man, inspired poet;  these are roles that Egil Skallagrimsson, Viking poet of Iceland, played throughout his life, and, in portraying Egil, as well as narrating his story, writer/actor Peter Oswald inhabits them all.

tell-us-block_editedThe performance contains three episodes in Egil’s life and each shows how his great talent for poetry helped him. First, we find him shipwrecked in the land of Erik Bloodaxe, whose family Egil had previously killed, and, under threat of execution, he composes in one night a play of such splendour in Erik’s praise, that he is grudgingly allowed to live. Secondly, on the death of his favourite son, he enters into deep mourning, not eating or drinking, until his daughter advises him to put his grief into words and write a poem. And finally, old and infirm, he battles with a sour-tempered woman and throws his treasure into the marshes, before declaiming his achievements aloud to the moorland.

The piece is performed by Oswald, with musical accompaniment by Howard Gayton, who plays an electric guitar, a kazoo, and a mandolin among others, as well as often simply tapping on the guitar’s amp to create a deep, rhythmic beat, all of which adds to the audience’s immersion. Gayton’s variety ensures he always complements the tone of Oswald’s words, and brings an extra weight to moments that could otherwise lose momentum; his tender mandolin playing at the death of Egil’s son is a particular highlight.

With only a black curtain and a spotlight for a set, Oswald, a superb physical actor, is always highly engaging, without letting his acting become distracting. During every story, there is a moment where the lights dim, and Oswald picks up a microphone to sing/speak a section of Egil’s own work, while Gayton strums his guitar. While Oswald’s diction suffers in these moments, it is worth it for the implied assertion that Egil was the rock star of his day.  

Of course, in a production about the great poet of his day, written and performed by a well-respected poet of today, it is the words that must take centre stage, and Oswald’s outstanding re-telling flows perfectly in the cadences and rhythms of the old sagas. This is a very individual show, but if, like this reviewer, your taste turns to Icelandic sagas and good storytelling, it is an excellent evening.

Runs until 9 November 2016 | Image: Contributed

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