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Refilling the creative well with The Telling

Concerts and small children (my own) mean I don’t often go to events other than my own. But as I always tell my students, it’s important to refill one’s creative well and so I do try to catch the odd show when I can.

Central Manchester on a Friday night is – as you can imagine – quite lively. But stepping inside Hallé St Peter’s something magical happens. Everything softens a bit and slows down and you find yourself relaxing as you pass through the bar and into the wonderfully flexible performance space. I have been in this space before and each time it seems to take on the form and ambience of whatever event is taking place.

On this occasion I was catching up with The Telling, whose performances I have been following for a while. Known for their unique and intimate combinations of new writing, old and music and above all storytelling, The Telling are not afraid of doing things ‘differently’. Bringing together award-winning directors, actors, musicians and imaginative lighting design, The Telling are rather like modern-day troubadours or travelling acts of the type who in the past would pop in your village square or stately home to entertain, bringing to life stories of the past woven together with observations collected on their travels.

Set in July 1492, a Jewess, Blanca must decide whether to flee or convert to Catholicism according to an edict issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In her programme note, Claire Norburn (producer and writer of Into the Melting Pot) points out that ‘the tools and language of persecution don’t change much down the centuries’. So this is not just a story of a 15th century Jewess in Seville. Rather, it is intended to speak to all types of persecution at all times. This was achieved via music that centred largely around two traditions, the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso el Sabio and the Sephardic Jewish tradition, many of whose songs ‘date back to the period after the expulsion of the Spanish Jewish diaspora as they settled in Eastern Europe and North Africa.’ Interspersed with these were some Andalusian/Arabic traditional songs, the earliest of which came from 13th-century Galicia.

As you can imagine, this must have taken some research! But the weight of such scholarship was born very lightly and within minutes of the show starting, any thoughts of it evaporated as the story-telling began. Suzanne Ahmet as Blanca encapsulated several roles. A woman fearful of the future and having to leave her homeland, she also told tales of nuns and miracles performed by Mary, of bandits who got their come-uppance. And in between she laughed, danced and sang, further blurring the lines between the apparent roles of those on stage.

The opening number, a song of yearning, was sung by Avital Raz, a Jerusalem-born theatre maker and musician, whose distinctive voice immediately set a tone of expectation of things to come. Her rich tones really came to the fore later in the programme with ‘Lamma Bada’, an Andalusian/Arabic traditional song about the captivating charms of beauty. This was preceded by a hymn to Mary, sung by Avital and Claire Norburn, whose raw vulnerability projected the image of an unwavering visionary. The following number showed their versatility as they turned into foot-stamping, whooping wenches (joined by Blanca).

And all the time, the weaving of songs and stories was further brought to life by an unassuming but quietly amazing trio of musicians: Emilia Agajew on harp, Giles Lewin on the oud (an Arabic lute) and Emily Baines on recorders and a softly-spoken double-reed instrument called the douçaine. Emily also had bells round her ankles and played what looked like wooden spoons as castanets.

I’m conscious that this is all starting to sound a bit python-esque, but the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth, although the story-telling didn’t lack humour!

In reality it is quite hard to describe and do justice to what was a truly unique event. Luckily, though, you can catch further performances of Into the Melting Pot if you are quick. And The Telling have a new show touring in June, I, Spie, which tells the imagined story of John Dowland as he combines his life as a court musician/composer with the Elizabethan espionage underworld. Think Spooks, 16th Century-style!

The Telling: I, Spie
9th-23rd June 2024
SW London – Brighton – Ulverston – Glasgow – Stranraer – Lancaster – Glan Conwy – Stratford-on-Avon – Folkestone – Colchester – Bedford – Cardiff – Liverpool

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