A twist in The 14th Tale

by Chantal Oakes
This week, Nigerian poet Inua Ellams comes to the Continental in Preston to perform The 14th Tale, on the 12th and 13th of March. It promises to be a fascinating performance, and this entry explains why I got involved in the project that will bring him here.

I am a massive fan of seeing performance. I didn’t see any theatre until a school trip to Billy Liar in the West End when I was 13 – but what caught my eye as a 7-year-old was the cardboard theatre owned by my sister, with actual lights powered by battery. I was very covetous and have since always tried to be involved in theatre performance in some way.

I have seen videos of some great American performance poets but very little live work around Lancashire (rather than Manchester or Liverpool). The idea of spoken word, for me, raises sharper memories of the great exponents of what used to be called monologue performance. Thora Hird, for example, who was born in Morecambe. And Uppards, a Lancashire version of Longfellow’s famous poem Excelsior, narrated by Stanley Holloway, another great monologist. Where did monologues go?

Right up until the 1960s and the end of colonialism, in much of West Africa as well as the rest of Britain’s colonial world, the act of delivering monologues was part and parcel of the concert-party line-up and the ex-pat experience. My favourite and one my mother tried unsuccessfully to teach me is The green eye of the little yellow god, a monologue containing the telling tale of the British Raj meddling with local religions!

In Nigeria, the performance circuit left behind post-independence was quickly utilised by Nigerian artists eager to revive traditional methods of theatre, and the monologue melded into the work of Wole Soyinka and Duro Ladipo, for example, as well as that of the jeli, griots and storytellers.

Performance poetry, or spoken word, is obviously not quite the same as many of the old music hall style monologues, nor as accessible as Alan Bennett’s television work such as Talking Heads – it is more visceral than that.

All these performance styles – of delivering words instead of music or drama – are only distantly connected to the art of performing epic literature. According to Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales, they do, however, all have ‘commonalities concerning the oral composition of traditional storytelling’.

This is why I’m looking forward to seeing The 14th Tale for the first time. I will not, however, be poking the performer with a stick like Marriott Edgar’s Albert, or trying to steal his jewels like Mad Carew!

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