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This is a story for you, my son
A song for you to learn and sing
The story of kingdoms lost then won
And here is where we must begin

So starts the Song of Riots, the latest collaboration from Awake Projects, currently running at the North Wall Arts Centre. Bringing together dance, music, acting, and video projection, the multimedia collaboration tells the story of two young men growing up in parallel worlds: inner city London, and the forests of the fairytale Iron Hans. This is a poignant coming of age story, a far remove from the happy ending of the rendition recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Director Christopher Sivertsen notes that the impetus behind Song of Riots came from ‘wanting to understand the conflicts that lie within young men’ as they undergo the rites of passage towards maturity. Although a lack of subtlety undermined the success of this production in parts, it presented a thoughtful exploration of moving into adulthood.

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The forests of fairy tales have been seen to represent a psychological wilderness: a place to be both lost and found, with shadows that terrify, and shade that comforts. In Song of Riots they find a surprisingly convincing counterpart in the streets of London, aided by Matt Smith’s kaleidoscopic projections. The fairy tale setting was more convincing overall than its London equivalent, due in part to the characterisation of the two young men around which the story revolves. The Prince (Jason Callender) was portrayed sensitively, with nuance and moments that emphasised that he is in a transitional phase of life. Despite wanting to be treated as an adult, he pleads with his mother to be allowed out to play, acting petulantly when he can not get his own way. The writing for Lucasz (Christopher Finnegan) was unfortunately not as strong in the first half, devolving into shouting matches that bordered on a caricature of the machismo adolescent. However, this divide dissolved from the scene where their two worlds collide, Callender and Finnigan interacting convincingly and seeming to build a genuine rapport between the two of them.

Music is at the heart of this production, from the songs sung by the Queen (Maria Sendow) and Princess (Hanna Björck), to Lucasz’s rapping. Setting the entire play in free verse with musical accompaniment (think Sam Lee meets AFI meets Eminem meets Sheelanagig) was an inspired move, giving an energy and drive to the dialogue that matched the intensity of the choreography. For me the most striking scene in this regard was the one in which the King (Oliviero Papi) and Queen make love as the Prince decides to free the wild man, where the sinuous movements of the on-stage characters were beautifully matched by the incidental score. The male-only dance sequences were less compelling: although they captured the violent frustration of the men in question, they interrupted the fluidity that characterised the rest of the performance.

This is a play full of power-play and challenges to authority, portrayed in the dynamics between fathers and sons, men and women, Lucasz and his drug dealer and music producer. It is from these tense relationships that conflict arises, proving to be both a destructive and creative force. The words of poet William Blake underlie the script, particularly his Songs of Innocence and Experience, providing a conceptual thread for the boys’ development. Writer Lucy Maycock writes that she chose Blake because ‘His poems deal with what human beings could be if they weren’t fettered by society’s expectations or prejudices. I wanted the play to carry his spirit throughout.’ While Blake (and particularly this set of poems) is something of an obvious choice for the theme of rotes of passage, the parallel managed to avoid lapsing into triviality, thanks mostly to the staging and musical settings of his poetry. The familiar words of ‘The Tyger’, encouraging the Prince to move through adolescence by shaking of society’s “mind-forged manacles”, seemed to take on a new significance when sung and accompanied by dance.

Song of Riots’ greatest attribute is its merging of multiple media, mixing elements of storytelling, dance, theatre, music, and poetry to create a uniquely visceral production that defies easy categorisation. The musical framework provided structure for the entire play, blending the city and forest to create an entirely new landscape altogether. Although some moments were more convincing than others, there were standout performances from Sendow and Papi in particular, who were consistently enthralling as the King and Queen. Awake Projects’ multidisciplinary collaboration is, for the most part, powerful and effervescent, creating a poignant perspective on adolescence.

L. C. Broad

‘Song of Riots’ runs until Saturday 18th April; for more information and to book tickets, please visit the North Wall website. More information about Awake Projects can be found here.

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s last work, Never Let Me Go (2005), forayed successfully into science fiction, projecting a grim future in which human beings are created so that others may live longer. The novel was widely appreciated (although it could hardly live up to The Remains of the Day) and turned into a well-received movie in 2010. Now, after an intermission of a decade, Ishiguro seems to have ventured into the realm of fantasy with The Buried Giant, in a move which has been less appreciated by one fellow author in particular.

The Buried Giant gained a lot of publicity through Ursula K. LeGuin’s vehement attack on it on her blog. Ishiguro was wondering about the way in which his readers would receive his new novel, saying, “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” LeGuin, one of the world’s most lauded authors of both science fiction and fantasy, was rightly angered at the fact that “It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.” One does wonder what Ishiguro is trying to do, if this novel really cannot be considered to be fantasy, because The Buried Giant presents a beautiful, albeit slow, fantasy story.

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Set in an imaginary period just after King Arthur drove the Romans from Britain, the Britons and the Saxons have finally found peace. It is a fragile peace, however, one that needs to be artificially maintained. A mist seems to have spread over the land, which clouds all long-term memories, making the people forget their past crimes and hatreds. At the centre of the story stand the elderly Axl and Beatrice, who, struggling against this fog, realise that they have not seen their son in years. They set out to find him, their memories muddled, but their intent strong.

The book deliberately takes a maddeningly slow pace: the pace two elderly people would take when they are in no hurry and their bodies cannot support them as well as they used to. The conversations are repetitive and often seemingly empty, consisting only of mutual reassurances between Axl and Beatrice: I am all right, are you all right? We must go on, are you really well? Yes, let us go on. For the reader who can bear this pace, so much slower than the twenty-first century usually expects of a reader, Ishiguro re-creates the effect the mist has on Axl and Beatrice. The narrative has a foggy feeling to it: it is difficult to see clearly what is going on, and the reader has to slowly grope their way through.

The fantasy ‘surface elements’ over which Ishiguro and LeGuin clashed come in the form of dragons and ogres. The ogres are a threat to the villagers: Axl and Beatrice meet the heroic knight Wistan as he saves a Saxon village from an ambush in which a boy was abducted. Wistan and the boy, Edwin, join Axl and Beatrice and soon find out that their journey will take them toward the lair of the dragon Querig, who breathes out the mist that causes this strange amnesia. Heading for the dragon, they encounter none other than a now very aged Sir Gawain, who seems to have been on a fruitless, quixotic quest to slay this dragon for several decades now. Sir Gawain has become a pitiable, laughable figure, and no real reason for this is given, which is disappointing for everyone who has ever enjoyed an Arthurian legend.

Kazuo Ishiguro © Jane Brown

Kazuo Ishiguro © Jane Brown

If a reader pities Axl and Beatrice, and the fact that they cannot really remember why or how much they love each other, they will realize how difficult this situation is for the knights: will slaying the dragon reopen the old wounds for the Saxons and Britons? Will Beatrice and Axl suddenly remember that the other has been unfaithful in the past? However, it is quite difficult to fully sympathise with the position of these two protagonists. Amnesia is very difficult to put into writing, and Ishiguro does not always convey it effectively. One half of the couple will remember something, and the other half will not silently, or shrug it away, or claim that it was misremembered – a technique that gives more doubt about than depth to the characters.

The ending is touching, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the fantasy elements of the story should indeed be carried all the way through to the end. If it is possible to argue against its very creator, one may claim that the fantasy elements go much beyond the surface if they are able to influence the reader’s interpretation of the ending. However, the main problem with this book has little to do with all this genre-pigeonholing: it is a slow book with characters that are not capable of captivating the reader’s interest for very long.

K. Dihal

‘The Buried Giant’ is available in hardback from most bookstores, RRP £20.00

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Cat Kelly is the Festival Director of this year’s Folk Weekend Oxford, running from 17th-19th April, bringing artists such as Jackie Oates, Lady Maisery, and John Spiers to Oxford. I spoke to her about the festival’s history, this year’s performers, and folk music’s popular perception.

Folk Weekend Oxford rose from the ashes of the Oxford Folk Festival in 2012. How has the festival developed since then?

Folk Weekend has grown and developed a lot since the early days – it’s hard to keep up sometimes! We have over 70 events, taking place across 17 different performance spaces in 12 different venues, packed into two and a half days. Some of the most significant developments include the addition of the Oxford Village Fête, which takes place in Gloucester Green on Sunday 19th, and the particular work we’re doing to improve accessibility at the festival. This year we are running two ceilidhs for children from local Special Needs Schools, and holding a relaxed performance during the festival, which showcases the work from a pilot project using Makaton signing with folk song.

How did the festival’s collaboration with the Makaton Folk Song project come about?

It’s not so much of a collaboration, as it’s a project that we set up ourselves as part of the wider work we do beyond the festival. The project came about because I’m a Makaton tutor, and I specialise in using Makaton with music and song. Singing with signing is really beautiful to watch, and I strongly believe that it’s something our current festival audience will really enjoy, as well as hopefully encouraging some other people along who wouldn’t normally come to this sort of event.

It’s not as simple as saying that just because I’m signing, suddenly every Makaton user is going to understand what I’m singing about, but I really hope that the fact that Makaton is a core part of the performance will show that this is something Makaton users can be a part of, and not something that excludes them. For our regular audience, I hope it will be a demonstration of the fact that just because you are deliberately making something accessible, that doesn’t mean it will compromise the quality of the musical performance.

Jackie Oates

Jackie Oates

How do Jackie Oates and John Spiers aid Folk Weekend Oxford in their roles as festival patrons?

We’re very lucky to have two fantastic patrons, both of whom live in Oxfordshire. Jackie and John help us raise the profile of the festival, by sharing information on social media and mailing lists with their own fans, but also through their association with musicians at the top of their game. Both are award-winning folk musicians and we’re very proud to have their support!  In practical terms, both Jackie and John have played at fundraiser events for us, and they will also perform during the festival.

With so many events to choose from, it’s inevitable that festivalgoers won’t be able to attend them all. Are there any that, in your opinion, are not to be missed?

Well obviously I would say the Makaton performance! It’s going to be something pretty special I think, and not something that you will see anywhere else. Other than that, Lady Maisery are fantastic and I can’t wait to see them, and Boldwood always put on a stunning performance. Of the lesser-known acts, Steve Turner is absolutely fantastic; when I first saw a YouTube video of his it left me spellbound. On the other end of the size scale, there’s Threepenny Bit, who are an eight-piece instrumental band, and are playing for a dance party on Friday night and a ceilidh on Saturday. They are fantastic musicians with really clever arrangements, and I defy anyone to listen to them and not want to dance!

This site’s preview of Folk Weekend Oxford gives an overview of the festival’s concerts, its family activities, and its central fete. Are there any other forms of events taking place?

Well, for starters, there will be around 500 morris dancers descending on Oxford during the weekend! We also have a number of dance events during the festival, including two main evening ceilidhs at St Barnabas Church, and a European-style dance at the Old Fire Station on Sunday afternoon. There will be plenty of informal sessions during the weekend; some are programmed and hosted by festival artists, and some will be impromptu and will spring up all over Oxford. We’ve listed some pubs in the programme that we know are music-friendly, so if you’re looking for a session those would be the places to start. We’ve also got workshops, both in the main festival and family festival. You can come and learn some Scottish fiddle tunes with Patsy Reid, concertina accompaniment with Steve Turner, or discover interesting chords to play with folk tunes with the accompaniment section of Threepenny Bit. In the family festival you can try out some craft, singing, and even Morris dancing!

Are there any regular sessions or events held in Oxford that you would recommend to local folk enthusiasts?

Yes, dozens! Oxford is absolutely heaving with folk – sessions, ceilidhs, dances, concerts and clubs, the list is endless. We have created a folk listings website, so we’d recommend browsing around that to get a flavour for everything that goes on in the local folk scene.

John Spiers

John Spiers

Folk is dismissed by many as archaic and outdated. Have you found it difficult to appeal to a young audience with Folk Weekend Oxford, or has this been far from the case?

To be honest, that view itself is becoming somewhat archaic and outdated. Bellowhead, fronted by our patron John Spiers, released a folk album last year which went to number twelve in the mainstream album charts, so saying that folk doesn’t appeal to young people or to the masses just seems a bit silly off the back of that.

In short, no, we don’t find it difficult to appeal to a young audience. Folk is one of the few genres that genuinely transcends all ages; you can go to a ceilidh with your whole family, and everyone from your toddler to your ninety-year old grandma can join in, at whatever level suits them. In fact, our ceilidhs almost always sell out, and are often packed out with people in their twenties and thirties. It depends really on how you define ‘young’, but it’s a far cry from the bearded stereotype that continues to be pedalled out. To be honest, I think people care less and less about the label that may or may not be attached to the music; as long as the music is good quality they are going to enjoy it.

To what extent does Folk Weekend Oxford benefit from fundraising efforts?

We are not a funded event, so we rely entirely on fundraising and sponsorship in order to have any festival at all. The festival is run by a team of volunteers who work all year round to ensure that the event can take place, and we’re extremely grateful for all of their efforts. There are a number of ways in which people can support us easily. We have a fantastic Friends scheme where people can pay a small yearly subscription in return for some exciting benefits such as backstage tours and our after-show party! If you are keen on shopping online you can also sign up to our click-through fundraiser, and every time you shop online the retailers will donate a small amount to the festival. It may only be a few pennies but it quickly adds up.

Lady Maisery

Lady Maisery

Which folk artists would you be especially keen to have at Folk Weekend Oxford in years to come?

When I was in my early twenties I saw La Bottine Souriante at Sidmouth festival, and I vowed that one day I’d have my own festival just so I could book them! One of my favourite bands is Melrose Quartet, who we had at the festival in 2013 – they were fab and I’d love to have them back. I’d also love to book Eliza Carthy; she’s been one of my idols for years. It’s very easy to be self-indulgent when booking a festival and just book your own favourite artists, but the flip side of that is that I also really enjoy the process of discovering people I’ve never heard of. We get a lot of applications to perform and, although it’s hard work going through them all, it’s worth it for that brilliant moment when you click on a link to hear the music, and just go, ‘Wow.’

J. Wadsworth

Folk Weekend Oxford runs from the 17th-19th April; for more information or to book tickets, please visit their website.

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In 2015, Folk Weekend Oxford celebrates its fourth year, returning with its usual mix of concerts, ceilidhs and sessions from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th April. The festival has steadily expanded once more, adding new events, venues, and patrons to its already impressive mix. As always, the centre of the festival’s concert programme is the Old Fire Station in Gloucester Green, but this year’s headline performances will take place in the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street. Other venues involved include St. Barnabas Church, the OFS Gallery, the Old Museum, and the Norrington Room of Blackwell’s Bookshop.

BBC Folk Award winner Jackie Oates returns as festival patron, but is this year joined by local folk legend John Spiers, one half of Spiers & Boden, and a leading member of festival favourites Bellowhead. Spiers has also been announced as one of the festival’s three headlining artists, alongside singer-songwriter Chris Wood, and the acclaimed vocal trio Lady Maisery. Other acts appearing will include The Hut People, Boldwood (whose new EP will be released at the festival), Patsy Reid, Moore Moss Rutter, Threepenny Bit, Ninebarrow, and The Rheingans Sisters.

bellowhead

Folk Weekend Oxford prides itself on its inclusivity, and 2015’s festival accordingly sees an expansion of community events. As well as a trio of showcase concerts featuring young musicians from local schools, there will be a new ‘relaxed’ concert, organised in partnership with the Makaton Folk Song project. The project, supported by Folk Camps Society and the Oxfordshire Community Foundation, aims to improve musical accessibility for those with communication difficulties. Makaton is a charity-driven language programme that aids interaction, through the use of signs and symbols alongside speech, and the concert will feature Makaton singing, which employs these techniques within a musical context.

This year, a new venue will be the hub for family events. The Story Museum, found on Pembroke Street, will be offering craft activities, concerts, workshops, singing sessions, a family ceilidh, children’s morris dancing, and, of course, storytelling, whether the delightful local tales of The Banbury Storyteller, or Debs Newbold’s blending of the ancient and the modern, the epic and the everyday. Following its popularity in the past two years, a village fête will once more be set up in Gloucester Green, with market stalls displaying the best of local craftspeople, artists, and cakemakers. This will be accompanied, in the centre of the square, by musical performances, morris dancing, and charity-run games.

Showing no signs of slowing down following the success of previous years’ events, Folk Weekend Oxford promises to provide another year of excellent music and inclusive activities, representing the community ideal of folk at its finest.

J. Wadsworth

Folk Weekend Oxford runs from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th April. Weekend season tickets cost £57 (£52 concessions, £48 youth, £40 under 12), but tickets for individual days or single events are also available. For full event listings and ticket information, please visit www.folkweekendoxford.co.uk. Tickets are available online in advance, and the festival box office will open on Friday 17th April at 6pm at the Old Fire Station. For any further questions, please contact Cat Kelly, the Festival Director, at cat@folkweekendoxford.co.uk.

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Every book is an adventure in which I am finding out about the world. (Amitav Ghosh, 23rd March 2015)

The Sheldonian Theatre played host on Monday evening to the renowned author Amitav Ghosh, who addressed the audience at the Chancellor’s Lecture.  This event was held as part of the Oxford Literary Festival, which annually attracts widely-recognised authors to debate and discuss their works.  Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated Indian author of historical novels set around the Indian Ocean, has garnered much critical acclaim for his postcolonial and postmodern works.  His fiction has won several major literary awards, including the ‘Prix Médicis Étrangerfor The Circle of Reason, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Calcutta Chromosome in 1996.  Ghosh’s fiction centres on narratives of dispersion, and displays a profound interest in the voices usually forgotten by history.  The hour-long discussion between Ghosh and Chris Clark, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, focused specifically on this interplay between fiction and history.

The driving force behind the conversation was the publication of Ghosh’s upcoming novel Flood of Fire, which is the final novel in his celebrated Ibis trilogy, and which will be released in May 2015.  The Ibis trilogy is set during the time of the Opium Trade, prior to the first Opium War (1839-1842).  Ghosh discussed his interest in the Opium Wars, and particularly the part played by the Indian nation in the conflict.  The matter of finding historical sources for the Indian role in that war was, however, a difficult one for Ghosh.  First-hand accounts are scarce, which he suggests is linked to the widespread problem of neglected voices in history; that is, the voices of those communities whose stories do not appear frequently in historical documentation.  These are the voices which Ghosh strives to accommodate in his fiction.  The role of language in creating these voices is, Ghosh stated, of the utmost importance; and it is through various ‘linguistic textures’ that he creates the rich tapestry of characters and settings in his novels.  Language, he argues, forms history, rather than just describing it. The author emphasized his love of writing in dialects, and the way in which the history of language, as well as social and anthropological histories, informs his work.  Ghosh discussed the use of pidgin variations as a means of accommodating the neglected voices, and expressed the joy which he felt at creating characters with idiosyncratic linguistic traits.

Amitav Ghosh © Ulf Anderson/Getty Images

Amitav Ghosh © Ulf Anderson/Getty Images

Ghosh and Clark considered the way in which historical novels fill the gaps exposed by academic history.   Ghosh commented extensively on the notion that history is concerned with larger historical forces, whereas novels are able to examine particular events, and the way in which these affect people(s).  The transformative power of small events in broader histories was considered, with the decisive six final minutes of the Battle of Waterloo described as an example of this great power of small incidents.  Ghosh explained that this type focus on historical detail formed the backbone of his fiction. The importance of the historical novel, Ghosh further concluded, was to ‘let the reader enter the past,’ to inhabit these great events through his characters.  The historical novel moreover offers a multiplicity of voices, whereas history usually cannot.  This polyphony allows the novelist to play with voices, and to create a multi-layered interpretation of particular events, which Ghosh certainly uses to great effect.

The witty repartee between Ghosh, a historical novelist, and Clark, an academic historian, was abundant, and it was clear from their friendly and informal approach to the discussion that both speakers are acquainted.  The tangents of the discussion, ranging from Bismarck’s preferred breakfast to masturbation during the Enlightenment, added a very humorous atmosphere to the proceedings.  The amicable relationship between the speakers made the evening not only fascinating and informative, but also extremely enjoyable. 

S. Mitchell

For more information about future events in the Oxford Literary Festival, please visit their website.

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‘For books are the shrines where the Saint is, or is believed, to be; and you have built an Ark to save learning from deluge.’

So said Francis Bacon to Thomas Bodley after the opening of the renowned Bodleian library in 1602.  The Bodleian is considered to be a symbol of Oxford University’s thirst for learning, and comprises of several library sites around the city.  This weekend heralded the reopening of the New Bodleian site, now known as the Weston Library, which is situated on Broad Street.  After several years of restoration the library is now once again functioning as a major book depository and study area for students.  The renovation has not only updated the physical building, but also seemingly the library’s attitude towards public engagement, as it now comprises an open ground-floor site which includes a café and a gift shop.  This idea of bringing the public into a University space has been further initiated through the library’s free Marks of Genius exhibition, which opened along with the library this weekend, and offers members of the public a wonderful glimpse into the special collections held by the Bodleian.

Audubon 'Birds of America'

Audubon ‘Birds of America’

Marks of Genius showcases the treasures of the Bodleian’s collections, with its exhibits ranging from medieval manuscripts to maps, and ephemera to correspondence.  The exhibition considers the premise behind the term ‘genius,’ providing examples of academic, artistic and literary genius from AD 880 to the present day, and focuses on those works of genius held by the Bodleian to be the most beautiful, and often the most valuable, objects of their kind.  Advertised highlights of the collection include a First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, a dust-jacket design for The Hobbit annotated by J.R.R. Tolkein himself, and a copy of the Magna Carta.  The curators bravely chose not to group these objects in categories of epoch or nationality, which would create a linear structure and narrative flow.  Rather, the objects are arranged in a more sporadic way, under broader groupings relating them in different ways to the concept of ‘genius.’  Although this structure is perhaps confusing at first, it certainly enhanced the feeling that these remarkable objects are intrinsically linked through their creativity, their beauty and their ‘genius,’ and drew some interesting connections between familiar and unfamiliar treasures.

Felix Mendelssohn 'Schilflied'

Felix Mendelssohn ‘Schilflied’

Crowds are naturally drawn to the more famous items in the collection, particularly the Tolkein dust-jacket, the Shakespearian First Folio and the Magna Carta.  The exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to view these celebrated items, many of which hold a national significance, and it is very rare to be given the opportunity to admire them closely.  However, the myriad of other items in the exhibition should certainly not be underestimated.  Less famous, but equally beautiful, artefacts in the exhibition include William Morris’ manuscript of the Odes of Horace, a beautifully illuminated book by the Victorian writer and designer, a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 Philosophae Naturalis principa Mathematica, and an example of Jane Austen’s manuscript juvenilia.  The collection encompasses Ottoman manuscripts, seventeenth century Japanese scrolls, ancient cartography and letters from such celebrated figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.  The variety of objects on display offers something to all visitors, with the scientifically-minded, the literary, and the geographically-inclined guests able to find plenty to suit their tastes.

'The Hobbit' dust jacket © Bodleian Libraries

‘The Hobbit’ dust jacket © Bodleian Libraries

By opening its doors to families and tourists, the Bodleian allows members of the public a glimpse of the artefacts normally reserved for a privileged group of academics. This friendly and welcoming attitude clearly made a good impression on visitors, and the weekend’s entertainment extended to a printing press working in the hall, and a jazz band serenading guests in the café.  Proudly displaying its greatest treasures to the world, the Bodleian has made a step forward in bridging the gap between the public and academia, and should certainly be applauded for doing so.  This exhibition is remarkable in its beauty and the rarity of its objects, but enjoyment of it is not limited to bibliophiles.  Rather, this is an exhibition for anyone interested in the founding moments of ‘genius’ in the history of human civilization. 

S. Mitchell

Marks of Genius: Masterpieces from the Collections of the Bodleian Libraries runs from 21 March 2015 to 20 September 2015.  Admission is free and the exhibition is open daily; the full list of exhibits can be found here.

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Imagine an island that lies outside of time and reality – a place where women run faster than horses, animals speak, and tales can heal the dying. This is Nick Hennessey’s Ireland, a mythical world spun from the threads of stories and songs. His set The Ruined House of Skin, performed at the Story Museum last month, travels through this imagined Ireland, breathing life into its inhabitants through music and narrative. He appeared at the Story Museum after being voted the audience’s favourite act from last year, and it is not difficult to see why. Hennessey’s performances are uniquely compelling, exuding an intimate authority as he leads you from one storyscape to the next.

The stories that comprise The Ruined House of Skin are obviously of personal significance to Hennessey. He describes himself as “Irish without any sense of what that really means”, born to an Irish father who had never been to Ireland during his lifetime. His telling is subsequently steeped in a sense of misplaced nostalgia: not only yearning to be somewhere that you cannot be, but somewhere that you have only ever imagined to exist. This sense of chasing the impossible is reflected in the stories themselves. The King of Ireland lies dying, and tells his son that the only thing that can save him is the One True Tale. We follow the young man on his quest to find the Tale, an ineffable object which proves to be as elusive and intangible as Hennessey’s Ireland itself.

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Some of the stories from The Ruined House of Skin are not quite as captivating as those from Where the Bear Sleeps, Hennessey’s selection of tales from the Finnish epic the Kalevala. There are a few hanging strands that are not woven into the larger narrative, such as the twins who never make an appearance after their traumatic separation at birth. However there is something cantankerously delightful about stories that refuse to conform to a listener’s expectations, and Hennessey’s performance more than compensated for any slight misgivings about some of the programme. He evoked the hag’s hut of skin with such a visceral physicality that I could almost smell the rotting flesh, feel the repugnant globules of fat adorning the door.

It almost becomes a cliché that at some point in a traditional tale, a poet with supernatural powers is likely to appear, speaking the world into existence or stopping time with their verses. And yet, sat in the dark listening to Hennessey’s words swirl around me, it is easy to see why storytellers have historically been accorded mythical, magical status. For a couple of hours in an empty room in Oxford, time pauses to hear kings, oceans, and spirits sung into creation on Irish shores.

L. C. Broad

For future events at the Story Museum, please visit their website. More information about Nick Hennessey is available here.

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