On Sunday afternoon, October 25, 2009, I drove to the newly-renovated Indiana History Center on the canal in downtown Indianapolis to hear storyteller Patrick Ball and musicians Shira Kammen and Tim Rayborn (a duo known collectively as “The Medieval Beasts”) bring to life a piece called “Telling the Flame of Love: The Legend of Tristan and Iseult.” It was presented by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society as part of the Printing Partners Storytelling Theater series. It was sponsored by Lewis & Kappes, Fred and Midge Munds, Tom and Pat Grabill, and Ryan Zumbahlen. Cathy Covey was the sign language interpreter.
It is a relatively new piece, I think. Usually Storytelling Arts director Ellen Munds only brings to Indianapolis storytellers and storytelling shows that she has heard and seen before in other venues around the country. When I asked her after this show where else she had seen it, she said that she had not, in fact, seen it before. When Patrick Ball had told her about it, she was intrigued. She trusted him enough based on past experiences to hire him based just on his description of the piece.
I’m glad she did.
It is as rich in imagery, language, and melody as a tapestry is rich in color and texture. It is sort of a tragic, Romeo-and-Juliet-type tale of star-crossed lovers, but it is a much longer and more complex story, with many more mistakes and misunderstandings, many more dragons and battles and bits of magic, and a more complete (one might also say more stupid, or more romantic) surrendering to love. It is also related to the animosity between all of Cornwall and Ireland, rather than just the animosity between two families.
Patrick stands and tells the once famous but now lesser-known story of Tristan and Iseult as if he is addressing a roomful of “my lords and ladies” in medieval times. He tells with his whole body – indeed, with what seems like his whole heart, mind, and soul. He ends by saying that he hopes our having heard this story will keep us from “the bitterness of love.”
In between sections of the story, Patrick sits at a fairly large Celtic harp and plays. The sound is ethereal.
Sitting near him are Shira and Tim, surrounded by authentically medieval-style instruments, including two smaller, medieval harps, a psaltery, a hand drum, a lute, and a vielle – a stringed instrument that looks something like a violin. Shira and Tim introduce us to these instruments before the story begins so that we can give our full attention to the story, not be distracted by wondering what the instruments are called.
Sometimes all three performers play together. Sometimes Shira or Tim sing and/or play, individually or together. I couldn’t understand many of the songs because they were in Galician or medieval German or 14th century English or 13th century French or one of several other languages that were completely foreign to me, but I loved listening to the gorgeous aural landscape of the songs. I also loved hearing the emotion and (it seemed to me) precision and expertise that these special musicians brought to their singing and playing.
On Sunday afternoon, all three performers listened carefully to each other and seemed perfectly synchronized.
I couldn’t always understand what Patrick was saying, but that was mostly because some of the place names were unfamiliar and because the sentence patterns and his accent were more British than what I am used to. He also speaks rather quickly in this piece. I had to concentrate harder than I sometimes do with other storytellers (or even other times I’ve heard Patrick tell) but the richness of the language and imagery was worth the extra effort.
Because of the intense level of listening required, this is not a piece for young children.
I didn’t look at my program until later, but the cast of characters listed there was interesting and useful. (“Ah, yes, the evil dwarf, Frocin! I remember him.”) If I had looked at it sooner, it might have helped me become familiar with the sound of the characters’ names more quickly as I listened to the story. I noticed during the second part of the show after intermission that some audience members were now following along in their programs not only the list of characters but also the list of pieces of music, which were grouped according to sections of the story: “The Childhood of Tristan,” “The Quest of the Lady with the Hair of Gold,” “To Philtre,” etc.
I think if I had never heard or read any version of the story of Tristan and Iseult before, and if I did not have the details in the program, I would have had a very hard time keeping up with the twists and turns in this epic. But maybe not. And anyway, I’m not sure I would have minded. Epics are supposed to be meaty enough to deserve multiple listenings. This one certainly does.
I left feeling that I had experienced a unique treat.
This was a one-performance only event, but the next event in the Storytelling Arts of Indiana/Indiana Historical Society calendar is…hey! It is my own presentation of “Of the People: Stories and Images of Abraham Lincoln.” It will be this Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 7pm in the Richardson Chapel of Franklin College. It is paid for by a Sharing Hoosier History Through Stories grant, so there is no charge for admission. Maybe I will see you there?
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
Email: amarylliswriter at gmail dot com