There's a promise of magic at the start of Beowulf: a spotlight picks out a closed chest, hinting at the wonders that might be contained within. And we are indeed treated to sorcery, of a theatrical kind, as a gaggle of puppets emerge from the trunk to tell a classic Anglo-Saxon tale. There's a book in the chest, too: an updated and simplified version of the famous poem, lyrically adapted by Craig Jordan-Baker into an accessible story of conquest, valour and kinship.
An epic tale told in modern language relies on a powerful delivery. Thank goodness, then, for actor Tom Dussek, who – in character as a mildly dishevelled stage-hand – steps forward to open the dusty tome. Dussek is a commanding storyteller, and soon builds the narrative from a hesitant start into a driving, compelling tale of fantastical heroism. He also lends distinctive and characterful tones to each of the puppets, ranging from the earnest and slightly childish Beowulf to the other-worldly monster he goes on to conquer.
The trouble is that, with such a big human presence on the stage, it's hard to give the little puppets the attention they deserve. Dussek doesn't just voice the puppets' lines, he fully acts them – and time and again I had to consciously remind myself that it wasn't him I was meant to be looking at. The puppetry also suffers from the difficult sight-lines in this hotel-room venue; I was only in the second row, but I still had to watch the crux battle scene (an atmospheric, filmic experience lit by flailing torches) through the narrow gap the heads of the people in front of me.
Some details of performance and direction are utterly exquisite, whether it's a twist of the head of a puppet, a perfectly-timed raised eyebrow from Dussek, or the simple but magical way they evoke a "demon-kissed mist" near the end of the tale. There's an interesting contrast between the detailed, naturalistic puppets, and the workaday boxes and ladders which are pressed into service as their set. And the music is a highlight as well; every bit as stripped-back as the staging, it features evocative repeated themes performed live to the side of the stage.
But on a high level, the piece just didn't come together for me. There are two separate forces at work – the imposing narration and the sometimes-delicate visuals – and rather than complementing each other, I too often found them competing for my consciousness. It saddens me to have to say it, but for me at least, the production ends up less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, with parts as individually impressive as these ones are, Beowulf still rates as a show well worth seeing.