Sunday 23 October 2016

Theatre: Beowulf will break your heart

Emer O'Kelly

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

Slaying monsters: Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: the Blockbuster at the Project.
Slaying monsters: Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: the Blockbuster at the Project.

In Beowulf: the Blockbuster, Bryan Burroughs takes us into the bedroom of a nine-year-old boy, and for 70 minutes we witness his dying father, allowed home from hospital for the purpose, trying to explain that sometimes when you take on monsters, courage is not enough. And he tries to tell the small boy that even when the darkness seems impenetrable "the light always comes back." He convinces neither himself nor his adored little son: they have been clinging to each other in the darkness for a long time; ever since the child's mother died when he was little more than an infant.

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Now the father, his drip disconnected, his hair sacrificed to chemotherapy, must try to help his boy to face an even greater darkness against all the odds.

And he tells him the Norse saga of Beowulf, the legendary hero who slays monsters and saves his people until he must face a final monster which he can't slay. And he tells the story in nine-year-old speak, in the persons of Bruce Lee, Crocodile Dundee, Obi-Wan Kenobi, even James Bond, from their shared world of blockbuster movies in happier times.

Burroughs is the author of the piece, and he performs it himself as a physical theatre work with precise and impressive technical mastery. But the real mastery lies in the devastating heartbreak he portrays. The pain, beauty, and desperately fierce love rage from the stage to force the audience into the furnace with him. You leave the theatre choked, helplessly tearful, and shaken to the core of your being.

Beowulf: the Blockbuster was developed originally under Fishamble's Show in a Bag series. It's at Project in Dublin, produced by Pat Moylan and directed by David Horan. Maree Kearns is the designer, and the piece is artfully lit by Kevin Smith with sound by Philip Stewart.

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It may seem like pushing your luck to try to mine two almost identical theatrical seams within a couple of years. But in the case of Visiting Mr Green, Jeff Baron's play of an unlikely New York friendship, the seam manages to turn up gold for a second time.

Baron's award-winning play is 20 years old and does show its age slightly (as starkly contemporary pieces almost always do), but it is compassionate, warm-hearted and undemanding, and still manages to take some vicious swipes at mindless prejudice and cruelty born of unquestioning faith and religious belief.

Ross Gardner, a lonely successful executive, was the driver of a car involved in an accident in which the elderly, Jewish, newly widowed, deeply lonely Mr Green, was knocked down. He is "sentenced" by the judge to pay weekly visits to look after the old man.

In other words, the play is not so much a shade as a twin of Tuesdays with Morrie, and its production at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, has the same cast as the former in its Viking production two years ago: Andrew Murray as Ross, and Terry Byrne as Mr Green. Morrie was phenomenally and deservedly successful, and Visiting Mr Green deserves an equal success.

The play has pointed relevance in its portrayal of the cruelty and misery imposed (and indeed demanded) by pious religious observance and unquestioning acceptance of received religious orthodoxy (in this case Orthodox Jewry, but there's an obvious replacement for Irish society). In other words, Baron's dry wit and compassionate outlook cock a snook at all those who claim to have possession of "truth" on behalf of their fellow human beings.

Terrific performances from both men, who are directed by Breda Cashe.

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