– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj –
How do we make myths accessible to a new audience? Update Olympus to the modern melodrama or perhaps the opposite: tying the modern to the epic? Vanessa Woolf, the storyteller of London Dreamtime links myths to the city’s own geography, combining it with Nigel of Bermondsey‘s urban history turned ballads, making a rather enchanting evening in various locales appropriate to the event’s theme. ‘Snow City’, themed around the world of the dead, had us meet decked out with scarves and hurricane lamps near St Paul’s Cathedral and wander via small streets to churchyards, the river and the remains of London Wall itself on a crisp evening that complemented the mood well.
Vanessa has a great conversational tone with enough detail to lend colour to the familiar stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. The dialogue sounded natural, with some nice voice acting giving (Hades in particular) character. The conversation between Orpheus and the close-but-no-(Eury)dice had the right amount of familiarity coupled with unease to make for a heartbreaking scene, with Orpheus’ doubt so very understandable:
“You played that song when we met”
“I’ve just made it up…”
“Of course! It’s so easy to forget down here.”
The stories were well structured too, with foreshadowing working well with the familiarity of the tales. My favourite example of this was Apollo telling the grieving Orpheus to “stop looking back” and live the life ahead of him, a neat way to tie the myth to its themes. While doing plot recaps after our party’s relocation did keep the thread going, and infrequent questions (such as names of Cerberus etc) helped bring us in and presumably helped Woolf gauge the knowledge of her audience, I personally could have done without the more panto-esque participation, but that said, it was kept to a minimum.
The interest in Hades is what ties these stories together, more so than any wider theme of voyages to the Underworld, of which there are a plethora of stories in most world mythologies. Without pulling punches, Woolf portrays him as a brooding, lonely figure who “knows what it means to be alone”, able to fashion works of great beauty to mirror the world above but without its life. Where rubies and sapphires are sustenance, he is almost sympathetic in Orpheus’ tale, allowing him to take Eurydice, despite mourning the loss of “the one thing [he] care[s] about, [his] precious shades”. That said, it is good to note that she pulls no punches in describing his motivation and behaviour in the abduction of Persephone: the somewhat chilling “I could get her” (rather than her more powerful mother), combined with the visceral image of him pouring the power of death into her – leaving her oozing a black cocktail as it reacted with her life – was appropriately menacing. This menace continues throughout the story as tension builds: we all know its end- she will eat the pomegranate seeds and Hermes (in this telling, Quicksilver, which did not need to be as lampshaded) will not reach her in time. It Cuts between Quicksilver’s frantic rush from Olympus to unfamiliar paths in the Underworld (that echoed the path Orpheus took in the earlier story) and Persephone being placated with creations of precious materials (from a clockwork bird to a pomegranate tree that blossoms emerald fruit, with juicy rubies). The self-satisfied “too late, sorry”, had such evil glee that the eventual compromise lacked some lustre, for the loss of tension.
And just how does London come into all this?
The walk itself was a nice backdrop to the Greek stories and yet more so to Nigel’s music, for whom the location was crucial. London served as inspiration to flights of fancy, putting ourselves in the shoes of Orpheus; for as he went down then so did we, but in our case down to the side of the Thames (who was at high tide, which probably saved us from death by wet marble). The search for Hades’ castle on the Hill with the pointed top that did not move became St Paul’s between buildings. Olympus was the subtle heights of Bastion Highwalk over the remains of London Wall, and Hades’ silver mirror was an artificial body of water surrounded by office blocks.
Walks were punctuated with various information about the surroundings and the evening did not seem too fragmented for its changing locations. Nigel’s music played into these, taking in the rich history of the city and its past inhabitants, telling us of Victorian toshers with their legends of Queen Rat, Winchester Geese at Crossbones Graveyard and a ghost of Fleet Street.
It was interesting to hear of the Winchester Geese and their unconsecrated graves (a condition of allowing them to practice), and of ‘Crossbones’ Cemetery itself. The song, a plea to those like TFL who wish to redevelop the land (“progress has an ugly face”) on behalf of the “sleepers” “just like you” who “shouldn’t be disturbed”, was earnest, if perhaps using some unpleasant rhetoric (such as, essentially, someone will not-respect *your* grave also, should you do so).
The biggest issue I had with the night was the balance Nigel struck between his folk songs and the tales behind them – as interesting folktales with their own merit (which he clearly appreciated and managed to infect us with his enthusiasm for), the introductions worked. That said, in the songs which covered much the same ground of the story, it would perhaps be better to leave the lyrics to tell the story and perhaps give additional information after, rather than before. This was most keenly felt in the ballad of Sarah Whitehead, who haunts the Bank of England looking for her lost brother.
My favourite song of the night was perhaps the first, as it worked on its own merit as well as to complement the story/history, without being subsumed by it. It told of Queen Rat, who would appear in the guise of a beautiful woman with heterochromic eyes and take to bed one of the drinking Toshers, who were essentially sewer mudlarks. Their evening would be pleasant, leave love bites and he would forever be blessed in his work, with rats pushing coins his way. The song was quiet, suiting the delicate banjolele, as he sung of a femme fatale from the point-of-view of an outside observer to the tosher (“will you breathe for her tonight?”). The power-balance is clearly in the Queen’s favour: the tosher is enthralled, and “it’s too late”: a step away from the original myth giving the song its own voice.
Evening as a whole
As an evening, I’d recommend it. Given the varied themes and locales, it’s an exciting evening that is a much-needed resurgence of the Oral tradition.