The poet and the sea monster

28 May

 

Legends: Monsters, Mead & Mayhem

Blue Elephant, 26.05.17

 

Hammer & Tongs Theatre are the company responsible for 2014’s Myths: A Day in the Underworld. Their new show offers a similar combination of a witty myth-inspired script, physical theatre and sheer charm – this time using Norse mythology as its starting point. Writer and director Jennifer R. Lee has combined an all-seeing god who watches over Asgard with three animals living in the ‘world tree’ between realms, and come up with the ‘Guardians’ – three central characters who keep an eye on events across the nine realms through a pair of magic binoculars. The Guardians – who are later revealed to take the forms of an eagle, a squirrel and an owl – guide the audience through a complex cast of gods, humans, elves, dwarves and monsters.

 

As Lee comments in the programme, Norse deities and stories are generally less familiar than Greek ones. The unfamiliar myths allowed Lee greater license and flexibility in adapting them for the script, but also presented a challenge since the audience would need something to orient them in an unknown mythological cosmos. As a result of this, Legends doesn’t manage to subvert and have fun with existing stories quite so creatively as Myths. It’s harder to make inside jokes when you also have to do a lot of scene-setting work. Nonetheless, there are some entertaining spins on mythology here, too. A lot of people have some idea about Thor and his hammer – though in many cases, the familiar version is bastardised by Marvel and embodied by buff Chris Hemsworth. It’s fun to see Thor reimagined in Legends, in a brief cameo, as a childlike and forgetful figure, showing up at the Guardians’ abode because he’s lost his hammer.

Legends shot

At the very beginning the framing device seems a bit clunky – perhaps because the Guardians are convenient hybrids rather than authentic mythological figures, they initially seem a bit bland. But as the piece goes on, it becomes impossible to resist its charm. My favourite character was the sea monster –  a very friendly and chatty individual who struggles to make friends because his language sounds like a mixture of Klingon and a cat coughing up a hairball. Charlotte Reid plays the head end of the monster – she delivers its polite, enthusiastic greetings in a chirpy American accent and then demonstrates – with equally enthusiastic spluttering and growling – what this actually sounds like to human ears. Other highlights include the elves’ dancing and the argumentative, murderous dwarves who – after an encounter with a magic poet – start speaking in flowery, Shakespearean language.

Many techniques and stylistic quirks are familiar from Myths. The three cast members are dressed in overalls and plimsolls, with lines of blue face paint the only concession to looking vaguely Viking-like. A backdrop of wall hangings, however, sets the scene beautifully with some convincingly Norse runes. The performers use no props except a single chair – the binoculars, a flask of magic mead and various other items are evoked in mime – but a musician provides, as well as guitar accompaniment, a series of practical sound effects including typing, knocking and a bell. The performance shifts very swiftly from an explanatory mode in which the Guardians directly address the audience into little performed scenes – the transitions are very slick, signalled effectively through a combination of lighting changes and the actors’ spot-on timing.

 

All three performers are excellent – Philippa Hambly, with her wonderfully expressive face, stands out, but the success of the piece comes from the actors’ effectiveness as an ensemble. Hammer & Tongs Theatre have carved out a very specific niche of myth-inspired plays, but they do what they do very well, and I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future.

Photograph: Philippa Hambly, Charlotte Reid and Oliver Yellop in Legends: Monsters, Mead and Mayhem, Blue Elephant Theatre, 

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