'Beowulf' review or 'The monster within.'

Beowulf – Chris Thorpe
Unicorn Theatre, 18th October 2017

I experienced ‘Beowulf’ at the Unicorn Theatre as a real physical relief: a relief to get away from the bad news that will not stop; a relief to get away from my computer, my phone, and the endless screens that make up our everyday lives. Theatre is now one of the few places we can still go to escape from it all – a place where we focus on one thing only, leave the real-world behind and journey somewhere far away.  And what a journey this show is.

Chris Thorpe has always been a brilliant story-teller – a writer of rare precision and heart. It is an ache and a joy to listen to Thorpe tell a story in the theatre. This time the story is an adaptation of the epic poem ‘Beowulf’ and, whilst Thorpe doesn’t perform, you can feel his presence strongly in a show which is - in classic Thorpe fashion - equal parts hope and despair.

Beowulf might be an epic poem, but it’s essentially a very simple (wild) story about a Danish fighter who slays a monster and eventually becomes King. There’s an awful lot of blood in it, some gruesome battles, and a monster that will chill you. Perfect fodder, then, for a children’s show with real guts and gore. 

Director Justin Audibert and designer Samal Blak have kept things stripped back and seductively dark and spikey. The production has the feel of an abandoned rock-concert, all safety latches disengaged. A DJ with glowing eyes stands behind his decks, encased in a scaffolding cage. The music feels like another character in this production: it breathes down our necks and plants frightening ideas in our minds.   

The stage is eerily lit and Beowulf – a female warrior in this version – resembles a rock icon at war, with a studded spine hairpiece and a slashed sliver outfit. A wall of speakers stands either side of Beowulf, a microphone occasionally drops down from above and, at critical moments, great bursts of fire erupt from the stage. There’s heat to this production but it’s released sparingly. Otherwise, this is show that slowly simmers and burns.

Debbie Korley’s performance has proper vocal clarity and swaggering physical pomp. She preens and prowls about the stage, yet never drops a word. Audibert’s direction is subtle yet forceful and the lights and pulsing sounds push down on us at all the right moments. Above all, though, it’s Thorpe’s script that pulls the audience into a close and threatening embrace. There’s an ease about Thorpe’s writing - an instinctive rhythm, graceful lyricism and easy wit – that allows the story just to flow. The descriptive passages gratefully unspool themselves, washing right over us and flooding us with physical sensations. 

Beowulf and his followers make it to Heorot; a place where the sun 'slides down the sky', the stream flows 'sadly' and the birds are 'frozen to the sky'. He confronts the King, who sits on a throne ‘thick with the blood of his people.’ Here is a script so lush and involving that we feel what it feels; we look wherever it points. When the monster finally appears – his face made up of shards of smashed glass – we are so ensnared that we look at the monster and his glinting mirrors, and see ourselves inside.