Review: Where the Bear Sleeps

I confess that until last night, I’d never been to a live storytelling event. While I devoured fairy tales, myths, and legends as a child and have retained a love for the fantastic and inexplicable within novels that I now read as an adult, I’d never had the opportunity to indulge in the group experience of watching an oral rendition of these tales. So when a friend persuaded me to watch Nick Hennessey performing tales from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic and possibly my favourite folk epic, I duly bought my ticket and arrived with a sense of mild apprehension that the event could not parallel the mental images I have of the tales from reading them myself. But from the opening verses I was spellbound, lost in Hennessey’s images of the frozen land of Pohjola and its inhabitants.

Originally published in 1835, the Kalevala is a collection of Finnish and Karelian folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot, who transcribed the tales from oral performances. The eventual result was a tome of 22,795 verses that recount the Finnish creation myth and tell the stories of, amongst others, old man Väinämöinen who sings life into the newly created world; the seducer Lemminkäinen who is resurrected by his mother after being cast in pieces into the river of death; and Louhi, the hag of the North who steals the sun and the moon from the sky. Full of magic, mystery, and murder, the stories bring together a wealth of influences from Greek and Egyptian mythology, to the Icelandic Eddas and Sami culture. As such a monumental gathering of Finnish folklore, the Kalevala was central in the forging of Finnish national identity in the later 19th century, and was the source of inspiration for various paintings, novels, theatrical works, and musical works. 

Akseli Gallen-Kallela 'The Aino Triptych'
Akseli Gallen-Kallela ‘The Aino Triptych’

Subsequently, the stories offer a wealth of material for an evening’s entertainment. And we were not disappointed. Drawing together prose, verse, gesture, narrative, music, and song (including an impressive display of throat singing), Hennessey brought forth his vision of the tales kept in a copper box. ‘In my throat the words unfreezing, In my mouth they roll and tumble, Through my teeth they dart and scatter, From my lips they leap and flutter, Falling gently where you listen.’ As the winner of the 2000 epic-singing World Championship, Hennessey’s English recitation of the Kalevala retains, in many parts, the lilting trochaic tetrameter of the original Finnish whilst being combined with a subtle humour that gave the ancient stories a modern edge. 

While the climax of the first half came with Ilmarinen’s forging of the sun and moon, perhaps the most touching moments of Hennessey’s performance were reserved for the second half with the telling of Kullervo’s story. Those familiar with Sibelius’s music will know Kullervo, the tragic hero of the Kalevala, from his choral tone poem of the same name. The Kullervo cycle tells the tale of a young boy brought up without love or tenderness, living a doomed existence that leads from one disaster to another. The story of child abuse, homicide, incest, revenge and suicide is macabre enough in itself, but Hennessey’s rendition brought home the distinctly human elements of the tale. Silence reigned in the auditorium as he lifted his hands to the heavens crying ‘Why was I born?’, Kullervo’s grief and despair at a world intent upon deceit and violence encouraging us to appraise the way we interact with others around us. As Ilmarinen learns after ordering his wife to bakes stones into Kullervo’s bread, treating others with contempt can only lead to harm, violence breeds violence, and jealousy will leave dreams shattered in pieces at our feet.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela 'Kullervo's Curse'
Akseli Gallen-Kallela ‘Kullervo’s Curse’

In 1936, Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ mourned the group interaction and shared experience that is lost through the demise of storytelling. 78 years on and organisations such as The Society for Storytelling and the Crick Crack Club, who hosted Hennessey’s performance at The Forge in Camden, are aiming to combat the reduction in oral narration, the latter describing storytelling as ‘a contemporary performance art.’ Renovating and renewing aged stories from Baba Yaga to Gaelic folk tales, these performers bring to life Muriel Rukeyser’s poetic statement that ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.’ If you have the opportunity to seek out one of Nick Hennessey’s performances of the Kalevala then I strongly suggest you do – it may just be the best £9 you spend this year.

L. C. Broad


For more information about Nick’s forthcoming shows, please visit his website. More information about the Crick Crack Club and The Society for Storytelling is also available from their respective websites. 

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