Actor Bryan Burroughs tells Shelley Marsden about the one-man show that has its audiences laughing and crying in equal measure…
BRYAN Burroughs is both the writer and star of last year’s Dublin Fringe hit Beowulf the Blockbuster, a physical, vibrant production with few props or gimmicks, making its way to Edinburgh next month.
The 37 year old Carlow man, who teaches physical theatre at Dublin’s Lir Theatre, is aware that the world ‘Beowulf’ won’t have theatre-goers dancing in the isles, hence the faintly ridiculous addition of ‘blockbuster’ to the name of his one-man show.
“A lot of my family and friends would have read excerpts of Beowful at school but it’s not a particularly loved story, not like, I don’t know, Hamlet. So we soften the impact with the name and then bring it to life.”
BEDTIME STORY FROM FATHER TO SON
His play takes the form of a final bedtime story from a father to his son, the father’s task being to try and ‘raise’ his son in the time it takes to tell the story – and he finds that the Anglo-Saxon classic contains everything he thinks his son will need.
But we also discover that this is a man struggling to communicate with his son, they don’t get on like they should; but through the story they find out about each other, and they’re able to deal with the reality of what’s happening (the father has a sad secret that he reveals to his son ten minutes into the show).
Says Bryan: “There’s a moment where the dad says, ‘Look, I’m here to tell you…’ but he can’t bring himself to tell his son his dark truth, so he says.. ‘a story!’ The boy jumps on this of course, and rather than being a dry retelling of Beowulf, the son keeps interrupting and demands it be told in the manner of a Hollywood blockbuster, making mention of Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars.
“The da realises he has to use these modern references to bring the story to life – like when he tells him the monster Grendel sounds like Chewbacca. But he also uses the story to help introduce his son to the idea of mortality, to grown-up fears.”
Bryan admits that the idea of using Beowulf in the show came last. First was the notion of testing himself with a one-man show, which he’d directed before but never starred in: “I’d been happy watering other people’s gardens but I thought I’d do something for myself”.
His own father passed away when he was younger, but the actor says their relationship was very different to the one in the play. It’s just fiction, but drawing on certain aspects of experience.
“As bleak as it sounds, I wanted to explore how wonderful life is if you embrace the fact that you’re mortal and have a limited time to do things”, he explains. “It sounds twee, but it’s all about embracing life. I don’t have a son (I aspire to) but…
“A good friend of mine passed away unexpectedly at just 24 and left a three year old daughter, and I was slightly haunted by how he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I thought, if you had a chance to say goodbye to your child and you had an hour, what on earth would you say?”
For dramatic purposes came the idea of bringing a child into the equation, who by nature is not one bit receptive to his dad telling him old-fashioned stories, or to talking about certain topics he feels he’s not ready for.
Finally, Beowulf came into play, with a structure alone that presented Bryan with a good three acts, and the emergence of a demon that tears everything asunder which we used as a metaphor for illness.
BLEAK – BUT WITH HUMOUR
It sounds bleak, but he assures me there is enough humour within to lift audiences and not just make them cry: “When the humour works, we can deal with the heavy stuff with a lightness of touch, but deeply. I’ve taken Cameron Crowe the writer as inspiration – every time something dark happens, you have to have a gag just around the corner.”
One example is, later in the play, when the boy is struggling with the idea that his dad is very ill. Soon after, we finally meet Beowulf and discover he has this really awful, Sean Connery-type accent. Every now and again, the boy will insist his dad puts on accents that he can never quite pull off and this is one of them.
It sounds exhausting. Especially when you think it’s only one actor taking on all these characters. I ask Bryan if he has to go out on the beers or collapse in bed after a typical show.
“I usually take to my bed with a tub of ice-cream and rest my voice”, he laughs. “What I get after a show is… a combination of profound exhilaration; then I go to sleep, wake up and remember I have to do it all over again. It’s almost like knowing you’re going to have a big family fight all over again before you can do the making up!”
He’s just back from Tokyo, where he was performing Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words II (it’s coming to the Barbican in June 2015). Set outside, the piece is traditionally down as a clown piece and is quite comic, but in Rachel O’Riordan’s production – outdoors – they played it straight, and Bryan was one of two homeless people sitting in their cardboard boxes.
“Tokyo was incredible”, he recalls, “especially the opening night. The heavens opened and we did it all in the pissing rain – the audience were aghast but we were in heaven, in our soggy sleeping bags and collapsing cardboard boxes…”
Beowulf: The Blockbuster runs from Wed July 30 to Sun August 24(not 11, 18) at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh. Call 0131 556 6550 or see www.pleasance.co.uk to book.