|Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf, photo Peter Hislop
Reviewed by Alanna Maclean
“Beowulf.” Realised and performed by Benjamin Bagby. Canberra International Music Festival, Concert 20. The Fitters’ Workshop. May 5 at 8pm.
WHAT a fascinating performance this turned out to be. Especially for those of us who many years ago chose to do early English (probably because we had read Tolkien) and therefore were compelled to translate the first one thousand lines of the Anglo- Saxon epic poem.
Benjamin Bagby’s performance, informed by much wide research into early music, comes right to the point. No attempt at historic costume, just a variation on ‘musician’s blacks’. A harp, also informed by research. Breaks like those between movements for retuning and water. And above all, in the suitably vaulted space of The Fitters’ Workshop, surtitles in modern English.
No modern film has ever properly captured the sense of this poem. The story of Beowulf, his arrival on the shore of Denmark, his introduction to the beleaguered hall of King Hrothgar and his battle with the monster Grendel is part of a very stark and masculine piece.
Bagby knows how to let the poem, with its rolling language full of sounds that have long since vanished from modern English, have its own voice.
Speaking and singing are tangled together. The style of performance matches the style of the poem, robust and subtle by turns. Bagby’s voice filled the hall without any assistance.
Grand stuff. History. Legend. Afterwards one might reflect on the limits of its world view and the nature of a story that relegates women to cup bearers (and later in the poem, to a monstrous mother with no name).
But on Saturday night in that long high space of The Fitters’ Workshop for over an hour and a half Benjamin Bagby’s performance let another space and time through the doors.