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At the turn of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton wrote a polemical essay, “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls”. A “penny dreadful” was a form of affordable, serial fiction; printed on cheap paper and sold at “dirty book-stalls”, it was the first form of fiction to cater to the newly literate working classes. The subjects of penny dreadfuls were monsters and criminals: “Varney the Vampire”, a blood-sucking aristocrat, and “Sweeney Todd”, the murderous barber, were both popular characters. This prompted anxiety in the press about the affect of horror stories on readers’ morals, but Chesterton praised the form for reaching a far wider audience than any other fiction in the period. He likened the writer of the penny dreadful to a “professional storyteller”, who would spread his carpet on the ground and tell accessible, entertaining tales to anyone who wished to listen:
In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that any one had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus.
Chesterton never, to my knowledge, took a carpet to Ludgate Circus. His essay uses the image of the exotic professional storyteller to defend a form of cheap print: for Chesterton, the storyteller is no more than an image, belonging to the past or to foreign lands, and not to London at the fin de siècle. But anyone who wishes to hear stories in London today can do so without wandering the streets in search of a storyteller crouched on a damp carpet. The Crick Crack Club hosts evenings of performance storytelling in theatres, in concert halls and at festivals, bringing international myths and fairy-tales to a London audience – in this case at Camden Town’s The Forge, which usually serves as a live music venue.
The Crick Crack Club was founded to develop storytelling as a contemporary performance art; the focus is not just on the stories, but on how those stories are told, and the story-tellers work hard to entertain and engage with their audiences. Standing alone onstage for over an hour, the storyteller must remember, embroider and improvise a significant amount of material, without losing either the audience’s attention, or their own narrative. Storytelling is not comparable to performing a monologue, for the performer has not simply memorised a script; rather, the tale can be altered, adapted or embellished, in response to the audience reaction.
The Crick Crack Club’s Nick Hennessey is an award-winning storyteller, and an entertaining and charismatic performer. Standing on a carpet spread with an enticing selection of instruments – including a harp, a drum, and what appeared to be a Tibetan singing bowl – Hennessey told us of his search for “epic song”, before presenting his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. The result, Where the Bear Sleeps, is an engaging and wonderfully weird story, featuring eggshells, incest, a vindictive witch and a child who cannot be killed.
The evening’s performance took place in two halves – 50 minutes before the interval, and 50 minutes after. The narrative was likewise divided: the first half dealt with an origin myth involving broken eggshells that became the earth, a series of hungry fishes that foolishly swallowed a flame from heaven, and an evil witch who held the sun and moon captive, while the second was the compelling narrative of a “war child” and his tragic path to revenge. The tale of shells, fishes and a witch was as whimsical and strange as origin myths always are, and Hennessey told it with humour and charm, but the second half was the most engrossing, and I was mesmerised by the sad transformation of the war child from victim to anti-hero.
In 2000, Hennessey performed his version of the Kalevala to a Finnish audience at the world championship in epic-singing, and he won. It is easy to see why: he has mastered challenging and complex material and his use of language is inventive and accessible. He uses numerous devices to make his narrative memorable and engaging, but repetition is one of his favourites; indeed, I sometimes found his repetition and re-phrasing a little wearing. Pairings like “she was stolen as a servant, she was taken as a slave”, and “send someone to row us across the water, send someone to fetch us across the lake” are helpful aids to memory and comprehension, but Hennessey’s use of this device every couple of sentences, along with his overuse of certain stock phrases, detracted from his otherwise well-wrought narrative.
Hennessey used the onstage instruments to accompany and intensify the performance, and the result was both atmospheric and moving, heightening moments of beauty or sadness. He has a gift for embodying the characters whose dialogue he narrates: he became a skiing witch, an amorous couple on a speeding sledge and a fisherman pulling up a gigantic fish, with nothing more than his words, a drum, an expressive face, and an agile body. This characterization brought the narrative to life, and was one of the greatest strengths of his performance.
The audience responded strongly to Hennessey’s delivery, with laughter and, at the most surprising moments, with gasps. Hennessey’s style sometimes felt too close to that of a stand-up comic; his use of humour was effective in bringing his story to life, but it also diminished the narrative’s sense of otherworldliness. His words evoked the snowy mountains and tangled forests of Finland, but his performance remained very much rooted in the here and now of the performance space. Yet while Where the Bear Sleeps didn’t transport me to the world it evoked, it was nonetheless an entertaining, touching and thought-provoking performance.
Performance storytelling today has little in common with Chesterton’s penny dreadfuls; the latter were short, gory and often poorly written, while the tales performed by the Crick Crack Club’s association of storytellers are intricate, mythic and beautifully constructed. Yet Chesterton’s words still apply. The professional storyteller, like the penny dreadfuls, makes his tales of magic and drama affordable and accessible. Not all performances involve a storyteller’s carpet, but all bring stories, old and new, local and mythic, to those who wish to hear them.
For more performances by Nick Hennessey, see his personal website.