Erica Wagner on how storytelling can bridge the gap between worlds – Times Online

5 10 2009

Erica Wagner on how storytelling can bridge the gap between worlds

In the hands of a new generation a timeless art weaves its ancient magic

It is not all fairy godmothers and happy endings, you know. Take the Sandman, who made his first appearance in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Night Pieces at the beginning of the 19th century and who has haunted our dreams ever since: “He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.”

I would advise you to screw up your courage before settling down to listen to Ben Haggarty’s new show at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival – he draws on Hoffmann and on the influence that his work has had on popular culture. Haggarty has created an intense, physical and alarming performance that journeys through the ambivalent mythology of the Sandman. Flirting with Americana, drawing on urban legend, fairytale and folklore, and paying oblique homage to Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, Hans Andersen and Nick Cave, Mr Sandmann stretches the boundaries of what is often thought of as “storytelling”.

Storytellers have long been a part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Words don’t have to be written down to qualify as literature – after all, the stuff was going strong for thousands of years before anyone thought to pick up a clay tablet or a quill pen. Writing, as Haggarty notes, was originally a device for recording rather than creation; for many years he has been a passionate advocate of the live, unscripted spoken word as a vehicle for artistic expression. As has Hugh Lupton, also appearing at the festival this year with a new show, The Homing Stone. Lupton is an accomplished and established storyteller whose retellings, with Daniel Morden, of the Iliad and the Odyssey are recognised as classics – no pun intended.

In this show, however, Lupton is on familial ground: for it is based on the life of his great-uncle Arthur Ransome, the author of Swallows and Amazons and recently the subject of a fine biography by Roland Chambers. The Homing Stone brings to life Ransome’s involvement in the turbulent days of the Russian Revolution. He lost his heart to Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Petrovna, in 1919 and they travelled towards the Baltic Sea – but all the while Ransome carried in his pocket a stone from Peel Island on Coniston Water, and was drawn by an inexorable pull homewards. Lupton describes the show as a life recast as fairytale; and it forms the third part of a trilogy of wonderful performances – Praise Songs – that he has built from family connections. The first focuses on his great-

grandfather Thomas Gee, and his meeting with the fairy folk; the second turns to Jenny Wing, a nursemaid in his childhood; and now he has set his gaze on Ransome.

It is this ability to blend the personal and the mythological that makes the art of the storyteller so mysterious and wonderful. New and old stories blend in the mouth of the teller and the ear of the listener, and gaps between worlds are bridged. A new generation of artists is taking up the challenge of bringing the spoken word alive in this way, too, and this year’s festival will have a performance by Dominic Kelly of Crow, a new hour-long piece. It came into being thanks to the Cambridge Storytelling Festival: in May, Kelly was awarded the new Directions Commission by the festival and Crow was the result. Ted Hughes once claimed that the crow “was created by God’s nightmare”, and certainly his dark plumage and sharp eye have been an inspiration to poets and storytellers though the ages. Kelly, who is from Cumbria, drew his inspiration from folktale, myth and folklore, but also from the life of his grandfather, a trickster figure in his own life, he said to me; he has woven that family story with legends from a northern borderland between fields and sea, where neither crows nor people are quite what they seem.

If you have never heard a storyteller before, there is a revelation in store for you – and if you are a regular listener, you will know what a treat awaits and will have already booked your tickets, I’m sure. I have.

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