Monday, July 24, 2006

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf

We went to Lincoln Center on Saturday night to see and hear Ben Bagby perform the first third of Beowulf. It was amazing: as a performance, as a story, as a feat of memory and stamina. Over 1,000 lines of text (and I have trouble memorizing 15 lines!) in Old English, spoken, sung, declaimed, and everything in between. I was really moved by the story, too, the hero who sees a problem and decides, even though the monster Grendel isn't his own problem, that he should offer to deal with the situation when the king's men prove unable to help, even though it might cost him his life.

I saw Ben perform this once before maybe 8 years ago, at the Amherst Early Music Festival, I believe. His performance has developed a lot and is totally embodied physically with a wonderful play of gesture and facial expression to match the amazing variety of vocalizing. He uses his right hand to play the harp, and then to gesture, sitting almost all the while on a small bench. So the movement is very limited, and yet...clear, telling, exciting. I especially liked the many ways he managed to eat his hand and paw his face while imitating Grendel devouring the sleeping warriors, but also striking was Beowulf removing his helmet and his sword before the battle (because he has decided to do battle with his bare hands) and the way the repetition of the gesture of supplication or address to the gods created a gestural refrain through the piece. The shadows cast by his little footlights silhouetting his gestures were a nice addition to the performance.

I want to know what happens next--there were enough little hints as the narrative came to a close that sent me riffling the bookshelf to see if I had kept my tattered copy of Beowulf, and I think the sad answer is, no, I did not. I'll have to add it to the summer library list. Meanwhile check out the website where you can see upcoming performances, pictures, and purchase a DVD.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truly anyone who has any artistic bent at all should see this! Although I admit I could cry at Hallmark commercials, I was surprised that I cried after this. I was soooo verklemt! Oy! But I think it was no so much the story himself. I mean, come on! Beowulf strangles a horrific monster with his bare hands. Herioc indeed! And incredibly generous! But hanky material? It was the sheer brilliance that he had in pulling it off, and what must have gone in to that (As you said, years). I guess it was the Vissi D'arte nature of it that had me all weepy!

But you know all of this, Jennifer, because I was the other half of "we."

August 08, 2006 12:20 AM  

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