Bagby brings “Beowulf” to vital life at the Logan Center

Sat May 02, 2015 at 10:53 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Benjamin Bagby performed his individual version of "Beowulf" Friday night at the Logan Center.
Benjamin Bagby performed his individual version of “Beowulf” Friday night at the Logan Center.

On Friday night, Benjamin Bagby brought his vocalized rendition of Beowulf to Chicago for a performance in the University of Chicago Presents series at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Bagby has been performing the poem throughout Europe and North America, in different versions of his own devising, since the mid-1990’s. The iteration that he performed on Friday night was devised for the 2006 Lincoln Center Festival, and consists of the first 1,062 lines of the poem, ending with the defeat of Grendel and the celebration that follows.

For his performance, Bagby accompanied himself on a small harp, alternately singing, chanting, and speaking the poem in the original Old English, as supertitles provided a translation. Bagby’s instrument is a historical reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon six-string harp, of the variety presumably used by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang the poem a millennium ago.

The harp didn’t play a large melodic role in the performance. Aside from the moments when it was used to imitate waves—as in, for example, Beowulf’s recounting of his swimming contest against Breca—the accompaniment rarely illustrated the action of the text. Instead, Bagby primarily used it to control pacing and set the mood: from the slow plucking of bare intervals at melancholic moments to the furious rippling during the battle between Beowulf and Grendel.

The harp functioned as much as a prop as it did as an instrument. Bagby used it to imitate a bow in describing the martial prowess of a character, reclined his head against it as if it were a pillow when describing Hrothgar’s sleep, and laid it across his lap and leaned on it with a conspiratorial air as the narrator delivered a knowing aside to the audience. Many of the most dramatically effective moments came when Bagby wasn’t playing at all, and his right hand was free to illustrate his tale with grand gestures.

The true instrument in the show was not the harp, but Bagby’s own voice, which was rich in characterization. With the bellowing of “Hwaet!” (Listen!) with which he opened the show, Bagby set the theatrical tone, and within minutes, had established the great variety of styles and characters his voice would inhabit. He weaved seamlessly between all manners of speech and song—from rapid-fire patter (as when the mead hall Heorot was constructed) to Hrothgar’s melismatic bewailing of his men’s slaughter at the hands of Grendel. His character voices included Hrothgar himself, hoarse with sorrow, and the drunken slurring of Unferth as he taunts Beowulf (which drew the biggest laughter of the night).

Were this a poem in a modern language understood by the audience, Bagby’s larger-than-life acting would likely have seemed over-emphatic. But for a performance such as this, of a kind that few in the audience had likely ever experienced before, his broad gestures cut through the strangeness that had accumulated over the centuries. They made what could have seemed distant and inaccessible seem immediate and approachable instead.

Posted in Performances

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