The Edinburgh International Book Festival marked the passing of Seamus Heaney, probably the most well known ‘serious’ poet of these islands of recent years, and also among the most ‘accessible’.
Heaney’s corpus reflects his wide-ranging interests and sensibilities, his translations – re-interpretations might be a more accurate term – including Robert Henrysoun’s ‘Testament of Cressid’, adaptations of Classical Greek tragedy and poetry based on the semi-legendary Irish king, Sweeney, alongside his other poetry.
It is to his adaptation of ‘Beowulf’ that the Book Festival turned, however, in an adapted production of the text as performed by the Tron Theatre Company of Glasgow as part of the cultural celebrations associated with the Commonwealth Games of 2014.
Lynne Parker’s production suffered somewhat from the constrictions imposed by the Garden Tent, a very different setting from that of the Glasgow church in which it was first performed.
Cast members Helen McAlpine, Lorraine Macintosh and Gabriel Quigley make the very best they possibly can of the situation, bringing Heaney’s sinewy and sinuous lines to vivid life, but entirely seated as they are for the duration of the performance, their task feels as if it has become the harder for this.
There’s also something more than a little ironic in celebrating the work of a poet most comfortable ‘among the furze’ as he describes it in an uncollected poem, published in ‘Ireland’s Field Day’ (Heaney was a member of the Board of the Field Day Theatre Company) by a presentation of his only work that uses an Anglo-Saxon text as its base. In his poem for ‘Ireland’s Field Day’ Heaney berates Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison for his inclusion in ‘The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Verse’ (in which some twenty of Heaney’s poems feature). ‘My anxious muse… Has to refuse/The adjective. It makes her blush. /It brings her out in a hot flush…I regret/The awkwardness. /But British, no, the name’s not right…’
A cavil, it might seem, but for this reviewer the awkwardness remains. Heaney is almost certainly the most significant poet produced in these islands in the latter part of the preceding century. His output was considerable and varied and, although this presentation of ‘Beowulf’ does ample justice to that single example of his work, it would be misleading to regard it as either typical or the best Heaney has to offer.