Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre, Glasgow Four stars
GRENDEL is dead. Beowulf is victorious. The mood is of celebration and so, in Seamus Heaney's taut and muscular adaptation, King Hrothgar calls for a bard to commemorate the defeat of the monster. What is needed, he says, is a work that links "a new theme to a strict metre".
It is the observance of Heaney's own strict metre that distinguishes Lynne Parker's consummate staging of this Old English poem. Billed as a dramatic reading, her austere, controlled and gripping production splits the text between Helen McAlpine, Lorraine McIntosh and Anita Vettesse, a Greek chorus in muted greys who strike every syllable with urgent authority.
Although their vowel sounds are warm and rounded, and their consonants kick and click, there is nothing here to suggest a poetry recital. On the contrary: they have a compelling tale to tell, one with all the violence and excitement of an action movie, and with unwavering focus they exploit Heaney's robust language for every bit of its narrative drive.
On the cracked slates and crumbling pillars of Charlotte Lane's set, enhanced by the modulating tones of Sergey Jakovsky's lighting and the near-subliminal echoes of Denis Clohessy's score, they make a formidable ensemble.
It's tempting to say that, in casting three women as narrators, Parker feminises the poem, but that isn't quite right. You couldn't accuse them of underplaying the fight scenes or skipping over the monster's gory excesses. Rather, by presenting the women as neutral observers, connected to the society but not active participants in the story, Parker makes Beowulf reflective as well as thrilling. There is something in the actors' plain-speaking acceptance of all the story's extremities – of a world where Christian belief is an insurance against unknowable dangers, where everything beyond the mead hall is strange – that makes it more mysterious still.