Monday, October 25, 2010

Firing Blankets

The Princess’ Blankets, 17th October

This year’s Manchester Literature Festival is tonight graced with the presence of two exceptionally talented exponents of the creative arts. One is the country’s first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, the other the littler-known and impressively bearded musician John Sampson (“my best friend,” Duffy refers to him as). And both are firing on all cylinders.

Their chemistry is immediately noticeable and incredibly infectious, inviting the audience into their intricately-spun fantasies. Interestingly, for a show billed as an event primarily for children, it is a predominantly adult audience, desperate not to miss the chance to see such an enchanting, intimate performance from one of the country’s foremost wordsmiths.

Tonight’s piece is billed under the title The Princess’ Blankets, an eco-fairytale that tells of the plight of a chronically-cold princess, for whom her father is desperate to find warmth and comfort. In true fairytale tradition, the king enlists the “help” of a mysterious stranger, promising him half of his kingdom if this suitor can cure the princess’ affliction. The story then takes increasingly dark turns as the stranger smothers our helpless heroine with blankets mercilessly crafted from the ocean, the forest, the mountains, the earth, effectively stripping the kingdom of all of its natural habitats and resources.

Duffy’s calming, mellifluous vocal tones are accompanied by a kaleidoscopic array of melodies deftly orchestrated by Sampson. In fact, his array of musical instruments are as intriguing and imposing as a set of dental tools; Sampson’s paraphernalia, however, are not designed to induce fear or pain, but rather to produce virtuoso soundscapes that thrill, entertain and amuse. One stand-out recital, in particular, has Sampson sporting a flea-bitten, sheep’s-wool wig and blasting out Mozart from an impossibly tiny pipe.

This is one of the real strengths of the piece: the throughline of the princess’ story will frequently segue into surreal, lyrical and often hilarious poems and ditties about subjects as wide ranging as the fishcake-addicted Queen of Scotland to the cleverly alliterative tale of an alienated, nomadic fox.

Duffy and Sampson also carve out a neat line in witty repartee with what appear to be spontaneous exchanges of sharp banter, deadpan humour and wordplay (apparently, I wasn’t the only one tonight to be introduced to the prolific sheep composer, Johan Sebastian Baa!). It is this that really reclaims the human face of the Poet Laureate, a position of such weight that it can often drive a wedge between writer and audience. It is clear that Duffy hasn’t allowed this to happen, continuing to weave eminently human and pertinent stories within her poetry and communicating these through the live experience.

Her imagery, as ever, is stunningly vivid, layering powerful motifs of nature that have helped to make her previous work so powerful. Tonight, we are presented with a blanket made from the sea where “dolphins leap at its borders” and forests where “bats hang like lanterns waiting for light.” The physical surroundings of the venue only serve to enhance this evocation of nature, from the torch-lit arbour of bare trees that forms the entrance hall, to the verdant, repetitious leaf-motif imprinted on the walls of the venue, the autumnal park just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. This is truly an elemental affair yet as the princess’ story develops, so too do the darker, malevolent undertones that are integral to any great fairytale, the ever-threatening “footsteps” of the sinister stranger conveyed with devilish aplomb by Duffy.

Throughout the show, Sampson keeps trotting out the instruments, always weird, always wonderful: the crumhorn, a musical “walking stick” that conjures the grand halls of Henry VIII through its medieval tones; the Chinese silken gourd that transports us all to the ancient Orient.

The combination of word and song truly emphasises the importance of this performance: a preservation of the oral tradition of storytelling, a custom that is sadly lacking in our hyper-speed, hyper-space world. But for one glorious, sense-heightened hour tonight, the material world disappeared for a little while, uniting the crowd through the most intricate yet primal form of entertainment, coaxing from us all our inner child, testament to a truly magical and inspirational event.

by Matt Colbeck

Matt Colbeck is currently studying for his PhD in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. He can be frequently seen performing in his band CreepJoint around the Midlands:

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