Three darkly dressed women sit on benches in a crypt-like room at the start of Lynne Parker's staging of Seamus Heaney's majestic version of what is probably the best-known Old English epic narrative poem to survive the centuries. With the trio's contemplations underscored by a whispered chorale, the women could well be Shakespeare's Witches in retreat, seeking sanctuary or enlightenment or else in mourning in the gloom. The wooden pillars that flank them are shattered and exposed, with little shards of debris frozen in mid-air as if hanging from a Fluxus-inspired peace tree.
When the women start talking, the tale they pass between them, of Beowulf's heroic slaying of the monster, Grendel, and his even more monstrous mother after she seeks revenge, is related calmly and without rancour now the battle is over. While this basic story is simple enough, it comes accompanied by a cast of characters as myriad as those in Game of Thrones, which at times it superficially resembles.
Parker's production for the Tron's Commonwealth Games supported Home Nations Festival 2014 may be subtitled A Dramatic Reading, but, performed by Helen McAlpine, Lorraine McIntosh and Anita Vettesse with exquisite flair, Heaney's rich and vivid text transcends mere story-telling to become a thing of flashing, pulsating life. Every stab of Beowulf's sword is conjured up by words alone, without unnecessary recourse to literal gymnastics, but with a raging calm at its root.
While by no means explicitly anti-war, in the current climate one can't help but think of what happens when real-life monsters invade small and vulnerable countries. There too, it seems, it is the women who are left to tell the bloodiest of tales.
On Common Ground
As part of Festival 2014, this collaborative (ticketed but free) event from Canada's Debajehmujig Storytellers and the Citizens Theatre had a magical feeling from the outset. The procession to the Gorbals Rose Garden, with police escorts, set the piece firmly in the community, showcasing local choirs, youth groups and Glasgow characters as the audience ventured through the "New" Gorbals.
Upon entering the Rose Garden, which basked in the warm evening sun on Friday night, the in-the-round performance space welcomed the six First Nation storytellers from Manitoulin Island's Indian Reserve as they explained the origin of the Thunder Bird and its importance for their culture. Young cast members were then introduced and their own storyline was cleverly interwoven, most humorously at times, against the backdrop of tenement living.
What followed was a whistle-stop tour of the history of the area, such as the rise and fall of shipbuilding and the destruction of community through high-rise living. However, there was also a sense of collective shared experience, as parallels were drawn between the two seemingly disparate cultures: the Highland Clearances were compared to the setting up of Indian Reserves, and there were many more observations such as the similarity of traditional instruments.
With around 150 community performers, including a live band, the direction was suitably slick and the original songs were impactful. The staging of the tenement windows was inspired, and the sense of alienation that came with the high-rise flats was subtly implied. At times visually stunning, it was also incredibly moving as a huge sense of pride in our city emanated from the local cast, especially the hugely energetic youngsters. The "banter" from passers-by also added to the community experience.
Edwin Morgan's Dreams & Other Nightmares
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Liz Lochhead's impressionistic homage to Edwin Morgan, her friend, fellow poet and predecessor as Scotland's Makar, first appeared in 2011 as part if that year's Glasgay! festival. Three years on, as the centrepiece of the Tron's Commonwealth-supported Home Nations Festival 2014 of poetic drama, director Andy Arnold has put the life and work of this major artist on a world stage.
It begins and ends with Morgan's Life Force personified as a dynamic and fearless figure at odds with Morgan's quietly mischievous public persona, before moving into the care home where he spent his final years. Here Morgan holds court, unveiling his past to his biographer in a tumble of anecdote and dreams peopled by lovers and dangerous liaisons in Glasgow parks after dark.
Lochhead's play weaves together a touching but unsentimental study of a complex and contrary figure. Morgan's ever-shrinking physical presence, so sensitively captured by David McKay, is counterpointed by the more bullish tendencies of Morgan's assorted companions, played by Steven Duffy.
It is Laurie Ventry's biographer, however, who anchors things.