Here comes the spoiler.
Beowulf, is the thousand year old poem telling the story of an unnaturally strong hero, who as a young man fights and kills two terrorizing monsters. As an old man, a king without an heir, he fights one last dragon, while enemy nations gather at his shore, awaiting his end and their chance to take his kingdom.
For the play, I’ve stuck mainly to this last movement of the story, old King Beowulf and his last dragon. I’ve given old Beowulf the daughter he never knew he had: 18 year-old Lara comes to her father’s land seeking help. Instead, she’s put into the unwanted role of heir to the throne on the eve of war. And then there’s this dragon.
So a father and a daughter are thrown together at the same moment their country is suddenly under attack for the first time in nearly twenty years. A man whose fate has arrived too soon, a girl who has to take up her destiny before she’s ready. And an entire younger generation raised in peace that has to deal with their parents’ expectation that, without question, they will defend their land to the death.
But for most of us in the rehearsal hall, it's still only our second day into this journey. Alexis leads us through a physical warmup. Alexis plays Sissa, Lara’s new servant and confidante, but Alexis is also the one of the two puppet masters, and associate artist on the show and so is involved in a lot of the directing and design choices, and mother to two small children who are staying at the centre, and also a yoga and Pilates instructor. She works the core muscles half of us don’t even know how to find, preparing for the physical work coming over the next weeks.
Next up, I’ve arrived with a rewrite. I’ve reduced the large trial scene from later in the play by a third. The actors give it a cold read—cold meaning in this case unrehearsed, rather than unenthusiastic. Both kinds are known to happen of course, but this one meets general approval. I’m not convinced the new version maintains the tension the scene requires, but it’s definitely a big improvement. More work to come on that one when we spend more time with it in three or four days.
The big job of the day is the first large ensemble scene, Lara’s arrival in Beowulf’s kingdom, Geatland, just as the outbreak of war seems inevitable. It’s a 9-11 moment, a Pearl Harbour moment, director Ken tells the actors. War has arrived out of nowhere, they aren’t even sure who the enemy is or how they can possibly fight them. The characters haven’t been weighing these decisions for a week, he says, they’ve only found out in the last fifteen minutes. Jeff and Andrea play two old men trying to work out the chances of their sons surviving a battle, young men who have never had to lift a sword. Soon there are ten characters in the village long house, arguing the level of sacrifice that can or must be made. Ken and the actors run through two hundred questions and tentative decisions, choices tried out in action, modified, discarded, then another two hundred. Just before three o’clock, the whole scene is run through, twice. Not bad at all, and I have a script scratched with notes for an easy rewrite tonight.
The actors go outside to work with the dragon puppet. The work on this big scene has left me with the nagging question, what is on Beowulf’s mind this whole time? With an enemy on his coast he doesn’t have the warriors to face, he discovers now a dragon may—or may not—have awoken in the land. He hides everything he’s thinking, we’ll only get glimpses. But I know I have to get deeper at it than in his key scenes I’ve written so far for the second half of the play. Ken and I bat around ideas and possibilities in the rehearsal hall. A few of them stick really nicely. There’s at least 8 or 9 scenes to deal with before I need any answers though. A few days at least.
I go out to see the company’s first efforts with the full prototype dragon. Nine actors working out the opposing leg movements of a giant lizard scuttling across a huge field. Jeff, Alexis’s husband and our second puppet master, leads the dragon march. Jamie fills in for Alexis inside the puppet so Alexis can watch from outside. Alexis and Jeff's four year-old Timothy is also watching, very pleased with the dragon… but as the legs tangle a hundred yards across the field and the dragon backs up to start again, Timothy inevitably asks, “Why does this show take so long?”
Lucky for me, dragons just take a while waking up.