To be drawn into the worlds created by an accomplished teller of tales is, for me, to experience something between a play, a stand-up comedy gig, a magic show and anthropological research. The pleasure is in the suspense of the narrative, the collective emotional experience of the crowd and the surprise and recognition of coming face to face with a new expression of fundamental human experience. Performance storytelling for adults is experiencing something like the renaissance that swept folk music in the 1960s. Like folk music, it has practitioners working in traditional and modern modes, but always with a deep sense of being part of an ancient, living tradition. It's a rich, invigorating form of entertainment and can be quite a trip.
Waterperry Gardens was a great choice of venue for this festival's maiden voyage. Tipis and marquees, formal gardens, a lovely house with tea rooms and an impromptu book shop, a car park and even a tiny amphitheatre. The camping field resembled a rural family campsite more than a Reading-style free-for-all. If the festival increases in size in coming years this may change, but for now, it seemed very peaceful.
Crouching to enter a tent, you will encounter a rapt assembly on hay bales, entranced by a figure who, without amplification, with perhaps a little lighting or a musical instrument, is weaving magic by the power of words alone. Enclosed, as we were on Sunday, by rain, with perhaps some distant music drifting in on the woodsmoke-scented air, each stage is a small, timeless portal to other worlds.
The programme is carefully planned, with concurrent stories running throughout, plus plenty of folky workshops (willow weaving, medieval plant dyes, felt-making and other crafts, massage, reiki and yoga, voice workshops, public speaking, drawing and meditation). Each night is wrapped up by spooky fireside stories by Michael Dacre, and there is a great representation of ancient and modern stories from across the world - English, Irish, Welsh, Polish, Armenian, African, Jewish, Caribbean, Arabian and more.
There was a truly impressive line up, from renowned performers such as Jan Blake and Ben Haggarty, to self-described "fledglings" such as Heather Jane. I particularly enjoyed Sara Liisa Wilkinson's hilarious and charismatic retelling of a Finnish tale involving a snake witch, mermaids and a schizophrenic castle.
While there are some sessions for tinies, the festival is slanted towards older children and adults: if your child is at the running-around-screaming stage you may struggle to keep them engaged. And parents who are concerned about such things should consider the nature of fundamental myths: darkness, sex and death are part of the package (although performers do distinguish between family and late-night shows, and shows with a recommended lower age limit are marked in the programme). There are some sessions for smaller kids though, and the presence of the beloved children's singer Nick Cope will hopefully be a fixture for future years.
The food was almost entirely vegetarian, a bold step which, as an ecologically-concerned omnivore, I am all for. The Waterperry farm shop and tea rooms, on site, can provide plenty of meaty goodness if required. It was a lovely experience for my veggie companion to know the Indian street food and the salads, soups and sandwiches at the Lindworm Bar were orientated towards him for once.
This is a fabulous addition to the Oxfordshire festival scene, and I'm already looking forward to attending next year.