'Beowulf' rewritten to include roles for females

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A London drama school has rewritten the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf to give women a big role for the first time in the male-dominated saga.

The Central School of Speech and Drama said it had used natural gaps in the story to introduce female characters.

The new musical adaptation includes the invented characters of Kali, a female warrior princess who proposes to Beowulf, and a band of swordswomen. The only notable female in the original, recently translated to great acclaim by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, is the swamp-dwelling mother of the invincible monster Grendel.

The adaptation, based on Heaney's work, opened yesterday at Minack, the open-air cliff-top theatre in Cornwall.

Cherry Chadwyck-Healey, 20, who plays the Danish princess Kali, said the new script injected "girl power" into Beowulf's narrative.

"I sort of jump on Beowulf, but he's not very in touch with his emotions. I've just spent all afternoon in rehearsals proposing to him and nothing happens. It's amazing fun.

"I do think it's important ­ we are also an education company ­ to keep half an eye out for how we present things and to keep the male-female roles equal. We do have a responsibility to check what we are sending out."

Dr Richard Dance, of Cambridge University, said the new script changed the nature of the poem.

While welcoming wider exposure of the first English-language poem, he said: "I think it might be seen as political correctness as it certainly changes the whole dynamic of the piece. Most of the women are active in different ways but not picking up swords. On the other hand, good luck to them."

The drama tutor Sally Mackey said: "We have tried to adapt the text to give it more sense for a contemporary audience. Oral history is part of our culture, like the legends of King Arthur. Adaptation of texts is nothing new. We are working within the zeitgeist."

Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, said he was drawn to Beowulf by what he has described as its "four-squareness of the utterance".

Writing in The Independent, Blake Morrison said of Heaney's translation: "Anglo-Saxon verse is celebrated for its alliterative riffs, its ringing and singing, and ... Heaney does it full justice."