I can’t remember a time before stories. Worn out VHS tapes of animated tales from the Greek Myths and Shakespeare were the standard entertainment for rainy childhood afternoons and to this day I associate the classics with plastercine. Another tape featured Jim Henson’s series The Storyteller, with john Hurt and his talking dog (which only on re-watching the show as an adult did I realise to be a puppet) telling often obscure European folk tales. It made me as familiar with The True Bride, Three Ravens and Fearnot as I was with Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. My dad invented Crab Stories, set in an intricate parallel universe in which my brothers were crabs and I was a princess, which he said were told to him in his dreams, and the gritty Hard Cheese, a prison drama which (despite begging) he would only tell in the car. He read us stories from Der Struwwelpeter in German (Shockheaded Peter) to the great concern of my mum, who wasn’t sure if tales of children having their thumbs cut off, being swept away in storms and starving and burning to death as punishment for trivial crimes was the most suitable bedtime reading. I remember her reading Aesop’s fables instead and the beautiful illustration of the tortoise and the hare on the book’s cover. I also vividly recall hearing voices in the night and coming down from bed to find my Grandma regaling my brothers with stories from the Old Testament, how exciting they were and the feeling of sitting in kitchen in my pyjamas.
My mum bought me Charlotte’s web and made me feel like the day I finished reading it I had performed a rite of passage into a magical adult realm of reading to oneself. Looking back I see that all the first books I read were fairy tales of one sort or another, stories of magical animals, and a simple brand good and evil. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, the idea of entering another world and the fantastic logic of the wardrobe made from a tree made from a seed from a Narnian apple.
Then one day I found Murder on The Orient Express in my primary school library and fairy tales didn’t get a look in for years. With a foolhardy disdain for the concept of age appropriate reading, I moved quickly from Agatha Christie to much grislier crime fiction. Looking back Der Struwwelpeter was probably invaluable preparation for sitting in the corner of the playground, aged ten, with a book I’d bought in a charity shop where a female psychopath drowns her brothers in boiling jam and cuts off her lover’s testicles. (Would I let a child read it? No. But did it mentally damage me beyond repair, making me dangerous around boiling fruit and kitchen knives? Also no). I badly wanted to be a grown up, but now I see that these gory stories were also tales about monsters and plucky heroes but often (sorry Agatha) without the psychological complexity of the fairy tales I’d abandoned.
But even during my years of Crime there was Harry Potter to keep the magic alive. And, strangely, these were the books that brought reading aloud back into my life. This time I was the reader for my brothers who, though older, were yet to discover the joys of reading for themselves. I was the Storytelling John Hurt, with our black Labrador, Sirius, at my feet.
As C S Lewis said ‘some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again’ and it was only when I started seriously making theatre that I let all the old stories back in. I was devising a surreal piece set in a nineteen forties Sanatorium where a young soldier crashes in through the window to the shock of two lonely nurses. We knew we wanted to talk about death and magic and guilt and suddenly a seed planted by Jim Henson over a decade before blossomed and we based the show around the tale of The Soldier and Death (which, if the animated Greek Myths serve me correctly is based on Sisyphus)the story of a soldier who catches death in a bag and subsequently can’t die. Later I worked with Hansel and Gretel to make a cabaret show about forest animals addicted to sugar. What I loved was the richness and flexibility of fairy tales; there was so much there already but also so much space to move around in.
It was the urge to be the storyteller and to find my own version of that rather than being John Hurt in a cloak with his puppet dog, the urge to tell stories in a very direct, intimate way, rather than making plays based on stories, that lead me to make solo work. And venturing into storytelling felt like finding my natural habitat. Developing my first solo show at Battersea Arts Centre, I didn’t use existing stories but found the fairy tale tradition a place to give voice to my own, personal experiences. I wanted to talk about death, but found it easier, funnier and more interesting to talk about a queen with a vomiting heart in a palace of rotting vegetables, than my own grandmother, quietly slipping away in hospital.
And it is death that has really helped me appreciate those old fairy tales and myths. My brother, who bought me a beautiful anthology of Grimm’s fairy tales a few years ago, died in December. I understand now the world it presents of curses, of ordinary heroes presented with deadly quests, of the magical power of love. I understand now why the princess in the Three Ravens simply knows not to speak for three years when her brothers are turned into birds and the way she cries ‘my brothers, my brothers!’ when the witch is vanquished and they are returned to her. I feel connected to these stories from a time when things couldn’t be explained now that my own life has offered a twist in the tale which I’m struggling to understand. I’m also interested in the stories we all create as we go along, the myths and tales that develop in families and the way stories help us fathom our lives, help us to make things beautiful and important in the telling.
I’m currently looking for new ways to tell stories as I develop my own voice as a storyteller. I’m exploring stories that rhyme, stories that are sung and stories that encapsulate something big by taking a peep at something very small. I’ll finish this curly tale, the story of my life’s stories, with a homage to one of those influential old VHS tapes and the opening line from Jim Henson’s masterpiece
‘When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller’