Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Poetry show was light fantastic

Something Wicked | King’s Arms Barn | Friday, November 24

JEUX D’Esprit, the Henley-based company of actors, musicians and technical savant Bruce Smith under the inspired directorship of Jill Richardson, is generating a contemporary version of the magic lantern and a unique revival of the small-scale event.

Their latest show, Something Wicked, at the King’s Arms Barn, was characteristically understated and far-reaching: renditions of four traditional narrative poems that celebrate the English language and its capacity for interpretation at so many levels.

The words were accompanied by well-chosen music from Fauré, Koenig, Jonasson and others — including recordings of local pianists Angela Pegilley and Darius Haplern — and images taken from the golden age of illustration by Arthur Rackham, Charles Folkard, C Gifford Ambler and the remarkable Steve Allender, who lives locally.

The first poem, Goblin Market, written in 1859 by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), tells the tale of two sisters, Lizzie and Laura — one wise, the other foolish — and how one is tempted by goblins to eat their fruit, with near-fatal consequences.

The poem is famous for its sensual language and rich symbolic undercurrents — the description of the fruit, the yearning that Laura has for it, the extremes of pain that her sister Lizzie has to endure to break the goblins’ spell and revive her — all highly charged with a Victorian moralistic fervour.

Narrator Sabrina McCann delivered the poem at its urgent and mouth-wateringly voluptuous pace, while we the audience lingered on close-ups of a delicate blushing cheek and the diabolical grins of the goblins illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). His images can bear close and slow scrutiny while we take in the words. Trinity School children played the parts of the goblins and Emma Dodd and Brittanie Willis played Laura and Lizzie respectively.

The next poem, The Jackdaw of Rheims, from the Legends of Ingoldsby by Richard Harris Barham (aka Thomas Ingoldsby, 1788-1845) was narrated brilliantly by Steffen Collins, who created an instant character in the jackdaw by a clever hesitant croak in his voice and then proceeded to tell the tale of the bird who thieves from the cardinal and ends up as a saint, not without the obligatory flight path of damnation, repentance and redemption. The illustrations of Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a contemporary of Rackham’s, were used here.

The 18th century tale of the unfortunate linen draper on Cheapside, John Gilpin by William Cowper (1731-1800), was the subject of the next poem, narrated with vigour by Harry Petrie and illustrated by champion equestrian and canine cartoonist C Gifford Ambler (1886-1965).

Frugal and fussy about appearances, Gilpin’s wife organises their 20th wedding anniversary at The Bell in “the Wash of Edmonton” and goes ahead in the chaise, instructing her husband to follow on a borrowed horse and to bring their own wine.

Gilpin sets off, but on seeing some customers approach, turns back, is delayed and then has a disastrous ride at breakneck speed, smashing the flagons of wine at his sides, losing two wigs and hats and never reaching his destination.

The fourth and final poem, Albert and the Lion by Marriott Edgar (1880-1951), was narrated by Frank Augur whose wonderful rendition is a lasting tribute to him. He and his family as the models for Allender’s illustrations are now immortalised in their association with surely one of the best examples of our “wicked” sense of humour.

The success of these evenings lies partly in the economy of means by which these titans of English narrative poetry are communicated to us. They are not lengthy, demanding spectacles but intimate occasions — the little and often that is so much more sustaining and sustainable.

Jeux D’Esprit not only reminds us of the rich seams of our cultural heritage but also brings us together in small gatherings, away from our various screens, and gives us an opportunity to watch and listen and share in the same physical space.

Camilla Shelley

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