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Something for the inner child in all of us, as composer Toby Young and writers Daniel Coleman-Cooke and Jennifer Thorp rework the age-old legend of Beowulf for modern times, a beautifully curmudgeonly Timothy West taking the role of the fearless hero (retired).
I wanted to keep the lyrical beauty of the original text, whilst also not requiring a degree in Old Norse to understand and enjoy it. So I decided to mix poetry and prose, incorporating a few nods and phrases from the poem.
I also wanted to avoid making Beowulf a simple story of right versus wrong and good against evil. My favourite plays and films always involve elements of complexity and ambiguity; to quote Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods: ‘Witches can be right, giants can be good!’
Traditionally Beowulf is shown as a fearless warrior, having been played by the likes of Ray Winstone and Gerard Butler. During our writing process, composer Toby Young had the idea of Beowulf being an old and somewhat fragile man, reflecting on past glories and yet having to face up to his biggest battle of all. This gave a real opportunity to make Beowulf sympathetic and heroic yet also somewhat flawed, prone to egoism and anger but also more vulnerable than audiences may have seen him before. In a similar vein, I hope our production adds a bit of colour and empathy to Grendel and her mother, often drawn as evil villains.
I hope that we’ve come up with a programme that works for adults and children alike and introduces new generations to this wonderful text.
About the music
Writing a ‘modern’ Beowulf has been incredibly exciting from a musical perspective. The rich world of monsters and battles (all reflected beautifully in an incredible libretto from the writer Jennifer Thorp) conjured up so many sounds and musical ideas in my head—the difficulty has really been pruning them down to fit into the time limit!
One of my main interests as a composer is blurring traditional senses of genre, maybe bringing in some folk elements into my classical music, or classical ideas into my pop music. Because of its age and its drama, Beowulf offered me the opportunity to do a lot of this blurring, hopefully creating a score which reflects some of the many different subtle characterisations in Danny Coleman-Cooke’s script. We never hear Beowulf himself sing—only speak—but the chorus of incredible children from a local choir for tonight represent the subconscious, inner workings of his mind, and typically sing in a straightforward, pop music style. The adult chorus, who are more like the moral advisors of a Greek chorus, float between folk music (when it’s all going well) and rather serious classical music when things are looking a bit darker. The solo soprano sings the darkest music of all when she takes the role of Grendel’s Mother (one of the monsters) in the middle, but she also adds some touches of sparkle and beauty at the end in the final chorus.
For me as a musician, Beowulf has been an absolutely incredible project to put together, and I am so grateful to the Armonico Consort for having the faith in me to bring together some of my favourite writers and musicians to create a dramatic tapestry, which I hope you will all enjoy listening to as much as I’ve enjoyed writing!
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