August 2014 - Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Pleasance Courtyard
Beowulf: The Blockbuster is a triumph of a one-man show. Tightly written and performed by the remarkably charismatic Bryan Burroughs, the narrative twines together epic and domestic struggle to create a piece of theatre which is poignant, witty, and vastly entertaining.
Set in 1980s Ireland, the tale is framed as a bedtime story, albeit one without a happy ending. Da is trying to tell his young son that he is ill, using the heroic poem as a vehicle for the revelation.
The Anglo Saxon poem works excellently in this context, as it allows Burroughs to explore life and mortality without stretching to oversentimentality or cliché. The superhero-obsessed son comes across the poem, informing his father that he has found a story called ‘How To Be A Wolf.’ Da deftly updates the story with modern film and comic book reference to draw in his son. Grendel has ‘teeth like Jaws, muscles like Ludo, and long claws like Freddie Kruger.’
The melee of accents the father uses to keep his son on board with the ancient story is a superb touch. Beowulf takes on a thick Scottish accent, because all heroes ought to sound like Sean Connery. Unferth, an outspoken competitor, is a plummy Englishman. Grendel’s Mother, somewhat bizarrely, is given the voice of Crocodile Dundee’s imaginary girlfriend. Burroughs demonstrates evidence of a sound knowledge of the epic itself. He may take liberties with the poem in order to give it modern, contextual relevance and to please his ten year old listener; however he does include detail that is directly lifted from the poem such as the description of Hrothgar’s impressive hall, and the fact that Beowulf goes into combat unarmed to fight the monster as an equal.
The set is bare save for a neon frame, which slowly changes hue according to the tenor of the story – frequently remaining a cool blue, but flashing red to bring the fire of the dragon (the final and mortal foe of Beowulf) to life. The sound effects are sparse but well-chosen, with the notes of a harp accentuating the poetic story. Burroughs’ physicality is impressive in its energy and versatility, bringing multiple characters vividly to life both within the recital of the epic, and within the frame story. The register is very well gauged, successfully steering through the troublesome waters of illness and death - but with a laugh always around the corner to bring the piece back from becoming truly harrowing. Beowulf: The Blockbuster is a beautifully resonant, funny, and absorbing piece of physical theatre.