Beowulf: Pluck, Passion & Puppets

jeremy webb


There is a theatre company in a very small town called Canning, Nova Scotia that everyone in this country should know about. It is called Two Planks and a Passion Theatre and its committed to producing and developing theatre that is challenging, provocative and that often mixes Canadian theatre with classical texts. Their work is presented as site-specific productions, known as Theatre off the Grid, outside amid seemingly endless trees and rolling hills at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. This summer they bring to life Rick Chafe’s adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf is an epic poem wildly considered to be one of the most important from Anglo Saxon literature. It was written by an anonyms Anglo Saxon poet between the 8th and early 11th century. It tells the story of Beowulf, the King of the Geats, who slays two giants and then takes on a dragon. This story has been told in a great number of different adaptations in novels, films, theatre, opera and graphic novels and seems to be a tale that has especially captured the imaginations of artists of various disciplines within the last fifty years. Rick Chafe’s adaptation is especially exciting because it takes the story in a fascinating, and distinctly modern, new direction.

At Ross Creek, the story of Beowulf begins in the middle of the original poem, after he has already killed Grendel, the Giant and Grendel’s mother and has been ruling the Geats for fifty years. Chafe sets the stage with hundreds of enemy forces approaching, forcing Beowulf to prepare his people for a wildly unbalanced war to protect their homeland and their honour. Into this fray arrives a girl named Lyra, who claims to be Beowulf’s daughter and then comes the news of an advancing dragon, livid after having his lair raided by the King’s Second in Command. All this within the first four minutes of the play, Chafe has given us stakes that could not be higher, intrigue, mystery, adventure and perhaps even the potential for romance.

It is clear that Chafe has written this play specifically tailored to the natural habitat of the performance space of Ross Creek and Ken Schwartz’s direction certainly enhances the experience. This is one example of theatre that works in perfect harmony with its surroundings, rather than being imposed overtop of it, and therefore it is one production that would lose much of its magic if performed anywhere else. The stage is set up with audience on both sides of the action, but Schwartz shrewd ability to keep everyone in constant motion and to ensure that everyone within view is always one hundred percent engaged and invested in their aspect of the story, that one never notices actors’ backs or cranes to see the source of the action. It is always all around, immediate and vigorous.

The cast of Beowulf boasts of a great many of Nova Scotia’s most beloved and brilliant actors and they, along with the impressive talents of some fresh new faces, certainly are the magic weavers of the evening. Jeff Schwager and Alexis Milligan, as a young peasant couple (Haki and Sissa respectively) expecting their first child, are immediate standouts. Their hilarious rapport with one another is nuanced and heart rending and their chemistry is alluring. As Sissa, Milligan is gutsy and practical, refreshingly, not at all settling into the gender stereotypes of the story’s time. There is also a strong sense of playfulness and mischief about her, which comes to the apex when portraying the Giant’s Mother in a re-enactment of Beowulf’s epic victories. Burgandy Code gives two fierce and mesmerizing performances, Andrea Lee Norwood shines particularly bright as a young lad vying to be the Army Cook but doomed, it seems perhaps, to be a coward. Rhys Bevan-John gives great dignity and much ego to Drengi, who incurs the wrath of the dragon.

Benjamin Irvine plays Halfburrin, Drengi’s younger brother, with a beautiful mixture of gentle charm and gritty determination. Daniel Lillifield plays Gautr, Halfburrin and Drengi’s father, who is caught, heartbreakingly, in the archaic ways of old. Lillifield gives a really haunting performance of this stubborn patriarch. Jamie Konchak is full of spunk and strength as Lara, once again bringing a lovely, refreshing modern humanity and a heroine to a very old, and patriarchal, story. Lara is the sort of girl who wants to have it all and kick ass doing it, which makes her a great role model for kids of all ages. Her relationship with Jeremy Webb’s formidable Beowulf is complex and lovely and it roots this story ardently as one about the relationship between parents and their children, the past and the present, and most importantly, how the children must forge forward in progress for the benefit of the future.

Beowulf plays at the Ross Creek Centre for the Performing Arts (555 Ross Creek Road, Canning, Nova Scotia) until August 6th. For more information or to book your tickets please visit this website.  

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