Interview: Beowulf

Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage. Adelaide Festival


Samela Harris speaks with Jessica Jelliffe about her upcoming production, Beowulf, for the 2013 Adelaide Festival.

A thousand years of baggage is how they've described Beowulf; but the Festival production travels light. The company flies with all its Beowulf props and costumes stuffed into one big old duffle bag. "Everything else is lights and imagination," declares Jessica Jelliffe.

Jelliffe and husband Jason Craig are co-artistic directors of Banana Bag & Bodice, the American theatre company which has transformed the Old English epic poem into what they define as "a song play". "We went around trying to describe it," she says. "Musical? Opera? There are sections that are music and are musical and there are sections that a very much a play in the theatrical sense of the word.”

"There's a seven-piece band and it is cacophonous and so much fun in parts, but that is balanced out with contemplation. So, we decided to call it a 'song play'."

Banana Bag & Bodice gained its boldly odd name by happenstance. The application form for the 1999 San Francisco Fringe Festival in which the couple wished to perform had a line which required a company name. They hadn't thought of one. But there was a banana bag and a bodice in their publicity photo. So that was it.

The couple moved their company to Brooklyn the next year but have retained their California connections. It was the Berkeley theatre company, Shotgun Players, which commissioned Beowulf.
"They asked Jason and composer Dave Malloy to come up with a show..."

Jelliffe is not sure that she believes in "fate". She chooses the word "chance" to explain how that show came to be Beowulf. "Ultimately the poem chose us. It had been on our shelf a while and at first it wasn't something Jason was interested in. But then he turned it into something, he made it again through his own eyes. He brought a very modern perspective and feel which was very true to the poem. And it has been growing on us and in us for the last five years."

As Jason wrote, so did Dave Malloy compose - and the urge for instruments grew. "Two trombones," exclaims Jelliffe. "At first there was only one, but we knew it had to be two!" There are now two - along with clarinet, piano, accordion, bass and percussion.

The action defies the conventions of theatres. It is played out in the aisles and through the audience. This is part of the very elastic view Banana Bag & Bodice has towards the expressions of theatre. They veer from anarchic punk to post-apocalyptic. They now have nine productions under their belt. The latest, Space/Space, is an intimate sci-fi piece with Jelliffe and Craig playing two brothers in a time capsule, one evolving into a woman and becoming pregnant. As it happened, Jelliffe was five-months pregnant when the show premiered last year. Their son, Charlie, is now getting used to being a travelling backstage theatre baby. And Beowulf is giving him plenty of travel.

After the early Berkeley days, the company took the production to the Edinburgh Fringe to give it a greater, more international airing and in the hope that it may be noticed and picked up. It was.

"Now we are earning enough to pay ourselves wages," triumphs Jelliffe.

Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage is off to be presented under the elite auspices of the American Repertory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thereafter, it has a number of gigs lined up in the UK. And, of course, it is headed down-under for an exclusive run at the German Club in Adelaide.

"It's a fascinating piece," reflects Jelliffe.

"As old as it is, it resonates strongly. The story resonates with iconic imagery and emotions.

"While it's layered in imagination, it's also loud in places.

"We try to balance it so people can hear the words and appreciate the story. It's not too crazy with ‘rock'n'roll show feel’ although that is part of it."

Beowulf was written in the ninth century in alliterative verse. Set in Scandinavia, it tells of heroic Beowulf who not only slays the monster, Grendel, but slays Grendel's powerful mother. Beowulf subsequently becomes a king and years roll on until a dragon threatens his realm and his bravery once again is needed. It's an epic poem and a pretty bloody tale. But it has stood strongly through the centuries to take its place as one of the most important works of Anglo Saxon literature.

Hence, the Banana Bags & Bodice troupe finds few people who have not read, studied or heard of Beowulf.

"In a sense, it's been running for 1000 years," says Jelliffe.

"Some people have said we are not reverend enough, we don't respect it enough. I don't like it when they think that. I think we revel in the story.”

Samela Harris

When: 11 to 16 Mar
Where: The German Club
Bookings: or BASS 131 246