Beyond the Border, 1999
Listen, just listen. Turn off the television, put down that book, kick off your shoes, make yourself comfortable and listen: to stories of gods and monsters, magic and miracles, queens and kings. Think back to when you were a child and remember the feeling those stories gave you, your rapt attention, the hair rising at the back of your neck, the satisfying combination of surprise and comfort that myth provides.
If you thought it was a feeling you would never recapture in your serious, grown-up life, you are quite, quite wrong – for three days, from July 2 to July 4, you will find the wonder and wisdom of the world’s best tales at the Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival at St Donat’s Castle in South Wales.
This year the surprise star attraction at the Hay Festival of Literature was a kelim-strewn yurt full of storytellers. Any lingering images of a bearded crustie droning by a fire were banished by the compelling performances of bards from all over Britain, telling tales from all over the world. The sinister story, brought from the Russian steppes, of the soldier who gambled with Death; the narrative and musical enchantment of The Three Snake Leaves, a performance woven from the tales of the Brothers Grimm; and when the moon had risen, erotic stories to raise a blush and a smile. But if you didn’t make it to Hay-on-Wye, you now have another remarkable opportunity to hear even more wonderful tales at St Donat’s.
This is the sixth Beyond the Border festival held at the 14th-century St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan, now home to Atlantic College. With its terraced gardens sloping down to the sea, its high walls and jousting fields, it is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for narratives whose origins make the building’s foundations look recent. The festival now attracts more than 2,000 eager listeners and over 75 performers: storytellers, epic singers and musicians from all over the world.
This is a truly international festival, which this year runs along three main themes: the world of Islam, tales from Japan and the fairy lore of Britain. Listening to Islamic performers gives an opportunity to experience a culture that is, even now, much more closely connected to the oral tradition – with its five-times-daily call to prayer – than is our own. Performed for the first time ever in Britain will be Patuagan and Palagan, two ancient storytelling traditions from Bangladesh, a blend of epic story, mime, dance, gesture and song. Sayyed al-Dowwi and Les Musiciens du Nil hail from Egypt, where they are the guardians of the 800-year-old epic of the Banu Hilal, which tells of the Arabic conquest of Tunisia.
None of these performers presents storytelling in the conventional sense, but sing their ancient material to draw the listener into living history. Don’t be put off by the worry that epics presented in languages other than English will be an impenetrable mystery:storytelling, like opera or any kind of theatre, is holistic: sound, music and rhythm fuse to create a complete experience. And never fear – English introductions and explanations are provided.
This year’s festivalgoers are particularly lucky to be able to see Yoshi Oida, who brings performances of enigmatic Zen koans from Japan. Oida has long been a member of Peter Brook’s Centre for International Theatre Research based in Paris; he appeared in Brook’s famous Mahabarata as well as in films such as Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow-Book. This is his first appearance at a storytelling festival; his simple, yet highly theatrical presentations of Zen tales, accompanied by German percussionist Wolf-Dieter Prustedt, are a valuable and unusual addition to the event.
Souls wishing to brave the spirit world will be able to hear Roberto Lagnado (a truly international performer if ever there was one: of Jewish and Spanish heritage, he was born in Alexandria, grew up in Canada and now lives in Britain) telling eerie Japanese ghost stories after midnight. And, as with the Islamic tales, there’s a modern angle: Kazuko Hokhi, founder of the eclectic pop group Frank Chickens, will be using live music and video to bring Japanese storytelling into the 21st century.
But why an international storytelling festival in Wales? From Wales and the Celtic tradition come some of the oldest stories of these islands: the fragmentary epic of the Mabinogion, the poems of Taliesin, provide a link to pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain: and hence to a time before what we think of as Western culture was established. The oral narrative tradition of Britain is a broken one – written narrative, the novel, the story, the modern poem, is a different thread altogether.
Drawing together, as the festival at St Donat’s does, the bearers of an unbroken tradition with those who seek to revive the British tradition provides a context for the latter. This year Welshman Daniel Morden brings folk tales from the haunted borderland that exists between England and Wales, between this world and the other; leading British storyteller Ben Haggarty and violinist and vocal improviser Sianed Jones call on another Celtic tradition, bringing to life the wild medieval Irish epic of Midir and Eadoin, a tale of romance and magic. Duncan Williamson, one of the foremost influences on the British storytelling revival, will be telling his travellers’ tales.
There will be new voices, too, at the festival: this year all the performers being introduced are women. Storytelling has to some extent been a male-dominated arena. Philippa Tipper, Morwenna Rowe, Xanthe Gresham and Sam Stone will all be making their debuts. They join the ranks of magical performers such as Cat Weatherill, who will be bringing her stories to enchant children and – as the night draws in – seduce adults. The rapturous reception she received at Hay-on-Wye should make her performances hot tickets.
David Ambrose, the director of the Arts Centre of St Donat’s, thinks this year’s festival, with its blend of native and international traditions, will delight and intrigue its audience. "We like to surprise people, to subvert the preconceptions they have about storytelling. Egyptian epic singers are so different from the British fireside tradition; and yet they’re all found here. It’s a truly diverse experience."