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Stage Review: 'Beowulf' emerges live from the Dark Ages

Monday, January 25, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

A packed Synod Hall took a journey far back into English roots Saturday night, back to Anglo-Saxon literary culture prior to the Norman Conquest, then back earlier to that society's oral, pre-Christian heritage from sixth-century Scandinavia.

It was quite a trip, as musician/actor/chanter/cultural archeologist Benjamin Bagby gave an 80-minute rendition of the first quarter of the epic poem "Beowulf," reciting, singing and dramatizing while accompanying himself on a reconstruction of a six-string seventh-century lyre.

Bagby performed "Beowulf" in the original Anglo-Saxon, the language at the heart of what we speak today, although it was long ago overlaid with the Latinate residue of Norman French. While you can hear its intimations of modern English, it's a language only the occasional academic understands, and I don't even have the alphabet available on the Post-Gazette computer to show you what it looks like on the page.

But the page isn't what matters, because Bagby took the punchy, evocative, heavily alliterated Anglo-Saxon verse and set it sailing through the air, drawing equally on song, poetry, acting and the varied voice of the lyre.

The presenter was the Renaissance & Baroque Society, but Bagby's program took us back as far before its usual chronological stomping grounds as the Renaissance (even in its earliest definition) is before our own day.

Though "Beowulf" isn't Renaissance & Baroque, it's still R&B - rhythm and blood, revenge and braggadocio, the epic poetry of a warrior culture that celebrates personal bravery and physical daring. As a whole, "Beowulf" also laments the transience of human glory, but Bagby's 80 minutes covered only the early part of the epic, leading up to Beowulf's bloody defeat of the monster Grendel.

A lot of the audience followed along by reading a fairly literal translation by Howard D. Chickering Jr., though some preferred to attend only to Bagby's face, voice and music. As some senator said yesterday about a different performance, I didn't see anyone doze off.

In fact, judging from the audience's close attention and standing ovation, some may have been moved to go home to read the rest of the poem, which tracks Beowulf through his more fearsome battle with Grendel's mother, his 50-year model kingship and his final defeat at the hands of a dragon. Some might also like to see it from the other side by reading John Gardner's strange and marvelous novel, "Grendel."

Bagby's equipment includes expressive eyes and a voice able to slip easily from crooning wonder to declaiming fury. Some passages had an ecclesiastical intonation; many others felt like folk balladry; occasionally the rhythm heated into a foot-stomping square-dance chant. Bagby did the comic villain, Unferth, as a querulous drunk; for Queen Wealhtheow, he adopted a sweet lilt. His voice dropped easily into mysterioso, accompanied by eerie riffs on the lyre, building suspense like any horror flick.

Sometimes Bagby addressed us directly, sometimes he stared off into the middle distance. Lament, hymn, gloat and a long wailing cry - he used it all. In short, he played the professional bard, holding enthralled a room far larger than the average Dark Ages mead hall.

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