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Stages | Terry Byrne

Seamus Heaney’s ‘Beowulf,’ performed as ‘Viking cabaret’

photos by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Within the confines of a cramped rehearsal room, the stirring story of the warrior Beowulf rolls off the tongue of award-winning actor Johnny Lee Davenport. As Davenport describes preparing for his confrontation with a dragon “meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes,” a three-person chorus moves together to suggest a shield, while a violin and guitar provide eerie accompaniment.

The Poets’ Theatre production of “Beowulf” will be performed at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center Dec. 10-21, in a production director Benjamin Evett is calling “Viking cabaret.”

“It’s not King Richard’s Faire or the Medieval Manor,” says Evett, “but there’s something about the story that resonates at this time of year. At the end of the calendar, in the darkness of the solstice, we are ready to sit and listen to a tale that reconnects us to our past.”


To help create the atmosphere of a story told to entertain people in the dark of winter, food, drink, juggling, magic, and Viking-style combat will accompany the 90-minute version of the adventurous tale of the warrior Beowulf. But Evett is quick to point out the “Beowulf” translation they are using, by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, is vivid and dramatic on its own.

“The charm of this translation is its eclectic and anachronistic feel,” says Evett during a rehearsal break. “Seamus doesn’t hesitate to use familiar phrases to illuminate an important bit of action.”

Written more than 1,000 years ago in Old English, “Beowulf” recounts the deeds of the warrior Beowulf, who goes to the aid of the Danes after they are terrorized by a monster called Grendel. When Beowulf slays Grendel, he is embraced by King Hrothgar, who looks on him like a son. When Grendel’s mother arrives to avenge her son’s death, Beowulf kills her, too. He returns to his home (in present-day Sweden), where he rules his people for 50 years until the lair of a dragon is disturbed. This time, Beowulf receives a mortal blow and although he kills the dragon, he too, dies.


“Our role as dramatists is simply to create a frame for the action,” says stage adapter David Gullette. “This is a poem that was part of an oral tradition of storytelling, in which old masters taught young apprentices how to tell it.”

To create that frame, Gullette and Evett imagined a trio of master storytellers — Davenport, who also plays Beowulf; Gullette, who also plays Hrothgar; and Amanda Gann, who also plays Wiglaf, a young warrior — training their apprentices, the next generation of storytellers.

“The poem is divided into three parts,” says Evett, “and it made me think of the Greek dramatic tradition of three principals and a chorus. In this case, the chorus provides a physical counterpoint to the story.”

To find actors who could create their own movement and integrate it into the poetry, Evett turned to Jason Slavick and his Liars & Believers’ theater company, whose work focuses on devising movement around text and music.

“We talked about how the movement could inform the story,” says Evett. Members of the Liars & Believers ensemble, Rebecca Lehrhoff, Jesse Garlick, and Rachel Wiese, “created a vocabulary of movements,” Evett says, “and then we shaped it.”

At the heart of the poem, says Gullette, are heart-wrenching comments on family and loyalty and forgiveness. “The language is remarkably dense and rich and powerful,” he says.



Translated and adapted by Seamus Heaney. Presented by the Poets’ Theatre.

At Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, through Dec. 21. Tickets $40, children 12 and under $15. www.poetstheatre.org

Full house

Opera and theater director Giselle Ty creates a site-specific music/theater/visual art performance in the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic Gardner-Pingree House on Dec. 11-13. “All at Once Upon a Time (or Variations on the Theme of Disappearing)” brings audiences of just 15 people into the house, with different scenes of music, movement, and interactive theater unfolding in rooms on all three floors. Each variation explores how we look at what is around us, what we choose to see, and what we miss. The performances are part of the Peabody Essex’s Present Tense Initiative. Tickets: $10-$35. 978-745-9500

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.