Theatre reviews: Beowulf | Grimm Tales

Nightmares gallop through Liz Lochhead's rich, passionate  play about Makar Edwin Morgan
Nightmares gallop through Liz Lochhead's rich, passionate play about Makar Edwin Morgan
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OF ALL the creative ideas crammed into the Glasgow 2014 cultural programme, the Tron Theatre’s Home Nations season is perhaps the most quietly, brilliantly original.

Beowulf - The Tron Glasgow

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Edwin Morgan’s Dreams And Other Nightmares - The Tron Glasgow

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Grimm Tales - Barlanark Community Centre, Glasgow

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It’s not only that it focuses on Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales, at a time when the global reach of the Commonwealth inevitably dominates the sporting news, it’s also that it explores the borderland between theatre and poetry, that most universal and yet most specific of art-forms and highlights the sheer diversity and range of our main shared language, English, as it flows through the islands, and out across the world.

So it’s perhaps appropriate that the glowing, burnished centrepiece of this season is Lynne Parker’s exquisite new staging of Seamus Heaney’s 1999 version of Beowulf, a mighty Anglo-Saxon poem translated into modern English by the greatest of Northern Irish poets, and spoken by Scottish actors in what Parker – who is based in Dublin – calls a “commonwealth” of poetry and inspiration.

As a piece of theatre, the show could hardly be simpler in form: on a stage floored with loose slate and furnished with four plain benches, three female speakers – Helen McAlpine, Lorraine McIntosh and Anita Vettesse, all magnificent in their clarity and force – look us fimly in the eye, and tell us the tale of the Danish king Hrothgar, and how his great mead-hall Heorot is attacked not once but twice by forces of almost unnameable evil, until a hero comes who believes that he can defeat this terror.

If the central idea is simple, though, there’s a huge and powerful subtlety in the detail of this production, from the division of the story among the three voices, to the quietly superb design, sound and lighting that supports the performance.

What the story of Beowulf has to say to us now – about how we fight evil and terror, and restore happiness to people ravaged by violence – is an open question.

Yet in this production the poem speaks, with a wise and mighty voice made all the greater for coming through the tongues of women, the sex once mainly observers of warlike violence, but who now perhaps feel the need to raise their voices and to act.

In the main auditorium, meanwhile, the Tron’s director Andy Arnold revives Liz Lochhead’s rich and playful 2011 tribute to her predecessor as Scotland’s Makar, Edwin Morgan – the man who famously dismissed Heaney’s version of Beowulf as “too Irish”, by which he meant too earthbound, and not experimental enough. In Edwin Morgan’s Dreams And Other Nightmares, Lochhead conjures up the months before Morgan’s death in 2010, when he was racked by strange dreams, which eventually became his last poems.

There are moments when Edwin Morgan’s Dreams almost seems to grind to a halt as drama, so heavily does it depend on the hesitant, bookish narrative of the character called The Biographer. Yet David McKay’s brilliant, complex central performance as the dying poet – and his many younger selves – fairly blazes with life and Lochhead’s tangled, passionate play succeeds where a more formally perfect drama might have failed, in capturing the inevitable doubleness, darkness, creativity and high tension of a gay Glasgow life lived mainly in the time when homosexual love was still illegal – as it still is today, in more than 40 countries of the Commonwealth.

At the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony last Wednesday, viewers across the world were invited to join in helping children whose most basic needs are still not being met, so it seems fitting that the Home Nations season also contains a children’s show – Grimm Tales, by Theatr Iolo of Wales – that reminds us how many of our traditional fairytale stories involve episodes of shocking cruelty to young children.

Theatr Iolo performed two of their three tales, adapted by Tim Supple from the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and in both Hansel And Gretel and Ashputtle – a version of the Cinderella story – it seemed to me that Kevin Lewis’s company of three actors and one musician were a little short of material to frame and link the twin narratives, and awkwardly caught between conventional we-talk-you-listen storytelling, and two stories so familiar that the audience is all set to join in, in best pantomime style.

There’s some delicious live music, though, and some fine moments of pure comedy and sheer horror as actors and audience together face the universal truth that children are not always loved and cherished, and that sometimes they need both a touch of magic and all their own strength to fight their way to a better life.

• All three shows now at the Tron Theatre: Beowulf and Edwin Morgan’s Dreams until 2 August, Grimm Tales until 1 August.