Thursday the 7th of February 2019. Ventnor. A beautiful town with rolling green hills that appear as if they move in unison when the breeze blows the trees to and fro. The townsfolk sheltered by a peaceful separation; with fresh, clean air that helps relax the mind – and lets it wander…
Ventnor is, to me, a place of whimsy and history. A place existent in our time, yet seemingly in so many ways, out of our time too.
The perfect place for an ancient story to be told. The story… of Beowulf.
A story shrouded in the mystery of history, we know little about where Beowulf originated from. We do not know who first created the story… only that it is the tale of a great hero who fought a terrible beast, supposedly set in the early 6th century, and passed down generations: both by word of mouth, and as a written manuscript that we believe dates back circa 1000. Originally untitled, the tale was named ‘Beowulf’ after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, and first appeared in print in 1815 by Danish-Icelandic scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin.
Over the course of this story’s existence the details are believed to have been tweaked and adapted many times by different people, and Seth Kriebel’s new adaptation highlights this humorously, using the art of interactive meta-theatre to put a contemporary spin on this ancient Viking tale.
At the door of the Ventnor Exchange, on a cold and windy February night, we were greeted by two Jack’s and instructed to go straight through to the bar (part of the performance, or a marketing strategy – I wasn’t bothered either way, the Exchange is my second home!), where my friend David and I got a drink, and were then told to head back into the theatre and ‘mingle’ instead of finding a seat… intriguing…
Seth, the Performer of tonight’s adaptation of Beowulf soon caught up with us, and asked us what had enticed us to experience the show this evening? My answer: ‘I saw the words ‘interactive theatre’ on the poster and thought – that’s my thing!’ He then asked me what experiences I’d had of interactive theatre before, so I explained I’m a Performer for a living and frequently do this kind of work myself… which Seth told me meant I couldn’t be on stage with him (obviously worried about being out-shined by my brilliance… chortles loudly), so he chose David instead.
Before the piece began Seth mingled with everyone who’d come to see the show and had chosen six people to join him on stage and be part of telling the story of Beowulf. Four stage left, who were acting as ‘the audience’ for Beowulf’s stories (which was where Seth put my friend David) and two stage right, who were Beowulf’s friends. We, the audience not on stage, were to be Advisors to Beowulf’s on-stage audience – there were many parts of this piece that required the on-stage audience to make a decision about how they wanted the story to proceed, and we were to assist them.
Atmospheric ‘epic’ music played throughout our adventure whilst Seth, acting as ‘The Storyteller’ and as Beowulf, asked us which paths Beowulf should take during his long journey through dark forests, along cliff-tops, into caves, underwater! Until we eventually came to battling angry monsters!
But my favourite part of our escapades was the detail of Seth’s storytelling: building up Beowulf’s ancient world, and then allowing us as a group to navigate it as we pleased! Even if the decisions we made were based more on intrigue and silliness (which they mostly were..) than what might actually be best for Beowulf, we were still allowed to see how the story played out – and the consistent continuity of Seth’s brilliant world-building sold his story, and at times brought great humour to the piece! For instance, whenever we visited a new location for the first time, Seth (as the Storyteller character) would give us a short but vivid description of the area – a verbalisation of the scene-opening descriptions you might find in a script: ‘The cliffs: there is a strong wind battering the tall cliffs, and the sea rolls angrily below’. When we later came to visit certain locations again he would recite the same descriptive opening. This was particularly amusing when we got stuck in a dead-end cave whilst searching for the monster (in this case the Mother of Grendel – the original beast that Beowulf slays), and had to go back to escape: ‘The cave: a dark and empty cavern with little light, that echoes as you move’ (Seth’s descriptions were much better, but hopefully you get the idea..).
This style of theatre not only tapped into my immense love for the meta form (a piece of art being self-aware, and exploiting that to experiment with the form – a piece of theatre that interacts with and relies on its audience), but also felt very reminiscent of a classic ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story, where a person’s experience of a story is different every time depending on the choices they made: ‘Will you go to the dark forest, or back to the cliffs and sea?’. The two people chosen to be Beowulf’s friends were just as involved in the action as the ‘on-stage audience’. Where the audience got to choose the locations Beowulf went to, his friends decided on some of Beowulf’s actions in the story. This was particularly effective when Beowulf fought the monsters: ‘Beowulf sees Grendel coming towards him thirsty for battle, what is his first move?’ My favourite gems here came from Steve Reading, who decided Beowulf would ‘narrow his eyes at Grendel’ and ‘just step out of the way’ when Grendel came to strike – clearly Beowulf was incredibly confident and calm, no wonder he is the hero in this ancient tale! Seth would then turn back to his on-stage audience, and recite the battle to them as his friends had described it: ‘I narrowed my eyes at the monster, then simply stepped out the way of its attack!’ Needless to say, Seth Kriebel’s clever and imaginative retelling of this epic, ancient Viking story was immense fun and a pleasure to experience! And with the enigma that surrounds Beowulf, I believe an interactive style is the best way to tell it. After all, the mystery is what keeps this story alive! So keep passing down your stories, because you never know: to the people of the future, you could be ‘Beowulf’.
Reviewed by Andrew Butcher
For more from Andrew, check out http://www.thewordsy-smith.com