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Beowulf review at the Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘joyfully smart’

Debbie Korley in Beowulf at the Unicorn Theatre, London Debbie Korley in Beowulf at the Unicorn Theatre, London

Hwaet do you get when you cross Anglo Saxon epic with heavy metal? Chris Thorpe’s Beowulf. Narrated by a fearsome Debbie Korley as the eponymous hero – spiky braid, leather gloves, every inch a warrior-king – Thorpe buckles the thousand year old poem into new shapes while paying sharp, poignant homage to it.

The language is a feast of fire and shadow, speckled with alliteration and kennings in a throwback to its source.  Beowulf has always been the story of a flawed leader; Thorpe teases that out to its contemporary utmost until it becomes a contemplation on how we create our own enemies, what it is to be brave. It’s one for older children than its eight and above age range suggests: there’s a lot to chew on in the language and ideas, and it requires concentration.

Justin Audibert’s production is joyfully smart in its handling of rock show tropes. Samal Blak’s design creates landscapes out of metal rigs and towering speaker stacks, and Richard Williamson’s unashamedly cool lighting employs the (literal) smoke and mirrors of a laser show. There are some rough edges – moments of narration are obscured by Danny Saul’s dread-heavy music and at times the relentless rock concert energy flags.

But mostly it’s buzzy, pit-of-your-stomach exciting storytelling, especially commendable for its organic assumption of female characters into the original (male heavy) story – not only Beowulf herself, but a host of other warriors, messengers and sentries. You leave thinking as much of the suffragettes as ancient warriors: “courage calls to courage everywhere”.


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