Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage from Banana Bag & Bodice storms into Mayfest for 2013. We chatted to Jason & Jessica from the company about how they developed the show.
Tell us about your version of Beowulf.
Jason: Our version of the epic poem is condensed into about an hour and ten minutes. The poem has been analysed and translated so many times. We used the Seamus Heaney translation as the backbone of the show. We’re true to the original narrative, but the language is modern. We also have a seven-piece band which allows us to have a little fun on stage and with the storytelling. It’s poetic and irreverent at the same time.
Why did you choose Beowulf?
Jason: It started off as a commissioned piece from a company out in California. They gave us pretty much free reign and I chose Beowulf more or less on a whim, just for fun really. We are used to doing small, intricate and intimate shows, but decided to do a big operatic investigation of something that was way outside our comfort zone. The show involves a lot of similar aesthetics to our previous work, but it’s much bigger and much broader. It also has a lot more people involved in it.
Did you study Beowulf at school?
Jason: No, I didn’t – I didn’t read it fully until after we had decided to make the show. When I did, I was amused by the subject. It’s really not my usual type of entertainment. I didn’t grow up reading comic books and wasn’t always looking for a hero. I’m not really your typical hero-looking guy – middle aged and with glasses. It became really interesting when I could see the hero from another perspective, though, as a flawed character.
What kind of themes do you usually work with?
Jason: We’re all about embracing the awkwardness of being human. We’re awkward animals. It’s in all our pieces along with the claustrophobia and existential crises of trying to exist in this world. We try to embrace the humour of these flaws.
Beowulf was written about a thousand years ago. Is it still thematically relevant?
Jason: Yes. It’s a piece about war really, about going to war without having a particularly defined position other than to take down evil. This is incredibly relevant and will continue to be because we always seem to be at war with someone. There is also a beautiful connection between Grendel and his mother which is very easy to relate to. Jessica has just had a child so this has taken on a completely different meaning for us. Love and protectiveness for offspring is a universal theme.
How was Beowulf developed?
Jason: I wrote a script after the commission. Then we worked with the same composer we’ve been working with for a few years, and decided which parts should be sung and which should be spoken. He put some parts to music and then we did some workshops with it in NYC and then California. We workshopped it as a traditional play which is unusual for us. We had to be quite quick because they needed it as part of a season. We’d usually take maybe two or three years on a piece. We worked with The Shotgun Players which was a leap of faith because we hadn’t gone beyond our own ensemble before. But this piece has 17 people involved so we needed to have a lot of trust in other artists.
Jessica: We had six weeks rehearsals after the workshops, and then six weeks of performance. Along the way, we did a couple of different fundraising events. One of them was at a famous warehouse called Chez Poulet in San Fransisco. We did a one night only show and had a number of musicians there. It was the kind of night where you bring your own beer and sit on the floor. We had no set and we weren’t even going to perform the entire show, but after reading the first act, we just kept going. We performed in and amongst the audience. They sang along to our songs because they’d seen the show multiple times already and we did the sea scenes with beer bottles and beer and it was a fantastic mess. It brought home to us how the poem would originally have been told and now we feel it’s the very best way to tell the story, by putting it in and amongst the people. We can all connect with it on the same level. This is the show we have now. It’s really interactive.
Jason: We went from a staged production to an event that can happen anywhere. The room becomes the set, just as it would have done in a mead hall.
How important was the music to the development of the show?
Jason: Incredibly so. The show is the music and the music is the show. It’s all completely intertwined. We’ve worked with David Malloy, the composer, for years and the same band has been with us for two or three years too. They are so important because the music is quite intricate and hard to play. They an integral part of the show. Sometimes we are asked if we can hire local musicians, but we feel the quality would be lacking if we did, despite their undoubted talent.
Do you know the UK well?
Jason: I grew up nearby, in Ireland, and then went to architecture school in Hull for three years. We know London well and were up in Edinburgh a year and a half ago for our first festival. It’ll be our first time to Bristol but we’ve heard great things and met various theatre people who love working there.
What does 2013 hold for you?
Jason: Touring Beowulf! We’re going to Australia, Boston and the UK. It’s going to be a lot about enveloping Charlie, our new son into the company and seeing how he’ll affect our work. He’s 6 months old now, so who knows what effect he’ll have …
May 17 – 19 at the Trinity Centre. Get your tickets here.