“The universe”, wrote poet Muriel Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not of atoms”. Poetic sentiment maybe, but when told well, stories have the ability both to let us explore new worlds, and to make us look at a familiar world afresh. This week, in a sparsely decorated room in the Story Museum, storytellers Clare Murphy and Tim Ralphs presented a collection of tales that without doubt achieved this. Set against a black backdrop decorated only with fairy lights, the two transported the audience to realms with spirits who can change your gender, and bowls that turn their contents into gold. In each of these stories, though, was the ordinary and the everyday – the young couple who wish to love without facing judgement from others, daughters with troubled relationships with their parents. They may have travelled beyond the constraints of the earthly in a single evening, but Murphy and Ralphs never once left behind the human and intimate in their stories.
The stories, drawn from traditional collections, formed part of their ‘Four Chambers of the Heart’ project. Following Murphy’s belief that storytellers have “a responsibility when deciding what kind of stories you tell,” the stories in the ‘Four Chambers’ are selected for their lack of adherence to the heroic-boy-meets-feeble-girl love story model. Gone are princes rescuing sleeping damsels in towers, and in their place stand princesses who take multiple husbands, and women betrothed to each other since birth. Murphy and Ralphs’ tellings had a beautiful simplicity to them, unobtrusively questioning prejudices and reaffirming that love is love, whoever (and however many) it is between.
Leading us through stories within stories within stories, Murphy’s comfortable charm and wit sparkled around the room, illuminating the darkest corners of her tales. In some moments she slightly outshone Ralphs, but on the whole the two complemented each other well with a natural rapport. There was a natural flow to their performance that avoided the format of embedding stories within others from seeming forced and artificial. As Ralphs revealed in a question session after the show, the majority of live storytelling is improvised, with some key phrases worked out beforehand. This spontaneity was more than evident here, with a freshness to their characterisations and interactions with the audience that seemed as though they would never tell the same stories in the same way twice.
The aforementioned question session was an unexpected bonus to close the evening, with both performers talking eloquently about the rationale behind the ‘Four Chambers’ project and the more theoretical aspects of storytelling. What came across most strongly in this discussion was that both Murphy and Ralphs see stories as a means of empowerment. Whatever tales the storyteller chooses have resonances beyond the mythical worlds that they stem from – whether they are myths or more intimate narratives that go against the grain – and it was the remarkable ability to give contemporary voices to fairy-tale princesses and carpet-weavers that was the greatest achievement of this show. The happy endings of the ‘Four Chambers’ belong to the twenty-first century as much as to the centuries in which they first took form, thanks to storytellers like Murphy and Ralphs continually breathing new life into traditional tales.