How do you stop a play about an epic Anglo-Saxon poem from turning into a dreary high school history lesson?
Turn it into a dreary version of High School Musical.
But what the American BBB (Banana Bag & Bodice) company delivered was a brash and shouty rock opera that failed to involve its audience or get more than a smattering of laughs.
Beowulf is being performed in The German Club, a beer hall that seems an excellent choice for a show supposed to provide a “raucous mead hall romp”.
The drama begins with three students engaging in a discussion on the Old English text. Flitting from academic lecture to cabaret, hero Beowulf appears amongst the audience and bursts into song before fighting to the death with monster Grendel. We also hear about the “issues” between Grendel and his mother, who lives in a lake.
The lyrics were passionately performed by a highly capable cast backed by a seven-piece band. But the script abjectly failed to rouse a large part of last night’s audience.
The dialogue sounded like it had come straight from a US teen movie (this was almost certainly intentional), with a proliferation of lines like “f*ck off”, “you’re stupid” and “you filthy fascist”.
Even cards held aloft by two of the female performers declaring “YAY!” failed to elicit more than a half-hearted cheer.
And the visual highlight of the night, a bloody plastic arm ripped from Grendel’s body, saw cringing smiles at the table I was sat at.
In fact, the loudest applause came from Grendel himself as he sat in the middle of the audience hollering.
Beowulf would have rightfully deserved top billing at a university theatre or as some kind of smart-arse podcast. It is witty, has a certain geeky flair and the cast boasts several fabulous voices.
But coming hot on the heels of the sublime The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in the very same venue, it felt disappointingly slight and soulless in comparison.
Theatregoers at the front of the hall appeared to be drawn in more than those at the back, some of whom began a conversation towards the end – before walking out.
Perhaps this was a reflection of the dearth of “audience participation”, despite it being promised in the programme.
Unfortunately, the interactivity didn’t seem to go beyond a couple of spectators getting splashed with some beer and the rest having to crane their necks as Beowulf and Grendel sauntered back and forth through the hall.
I confess, in a gross dereliction of duty, I failed to read Beowulf before seeing last night’s performance. But if devouring 3,182 lines of tenth century poetry is a prerequisite for enjoying this show, it’s a pretty niche sort of entertainment.
And I wasn’t the only one. In the penultimate scene of the play, one of the student characters admitted he had given up reading it before reaching the end.
Why? “It just goes on a bit, and seemed irrelevant.” He said it.