A noisy return from the grave

BEOWULF. English Shakespeare Company International His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen. Brian Hayward goes to Aberdeen to see Michael Bogdanov's version of Beowulf.

NO PHYSICAL FILE For a few brief weeks, children's theatre is snatched from obscurity to be the cause of a dog-fight. First with the bone was Michael Bogdanov, a theatre director who, you might say, has never shrunk from the glare of publicity. Just now he is proposing to launch a National Children's Theatre, and there are no free tickets for guessing the name of the likely director.

It all started in 1994 when the Arts Council refused to fund Bogdanov's English Shakespeare Company production of Faust. This wiped out the touring production company, and left it with only the rump of its theatre in education (TIE) work. The tail wagged rather well, however, to the point now where the company has 12 separate education projects touring to more than 1,000 schools from Exeter to Aberdeen.

Realising there was money in schools, Bogdanov re-named the company ESC International (ESCi) and put it back on the road, again touring full-scale productions but now with the kind of TIE curriculum enrichment Scottish teachers are well used to from TAG, First Bite and others.

All would have been well if ESCi had just quietly got on with it, but with the help of some national newspaper pundits who should have known better, touring Beowulf to primary schools is suddenly new and amazing, which mildly annoys directors such as TAG's Tony Graham, who have been quietly doing versions of the same play for more than a decade.

Quietly, however, is not the Bogdanov style, and last week ESCi drove into Aberdeen with the double whammy of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Beowulf, a company of almost 100 splendid sets and costumes, an expensively printed programme, and even a teacher's resource pack written by someone with a "Master's Degree in Primary Drama".

Beowulf was vividly staged by a company built round the five members of Mortale, "Poland's premi re troupe of acrobats", it said in the programme. At best amazing physical theatre, at worst mere acrobatics, the performance was at times almost a contest between the fluid stage pictures and the verse narrative.

The narrative lost out, naturally enough, and with it much of the moral force of the story. The litmus test of serious children's theatre is always how it handles life's downsides, in particular, death. We have a complete cop-out in the finale of this production, where the death of the hero, betrayed by all but one of his followers, is marked by a jolly wake and a Riverdance-style reprise of the longsword dancing.

The young ones, and there were many in His Majesty's theatre, Aberdeen, that night, clearly enjoyed it, and any polished theatre work for children, as this is, is to be embraced.

ESCi will be a welcome addition to the world of children's theatre, but only if they take children as seriously as they take themselves.

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