The right story for the right time – The Bed of Arrows

Posted: June 17th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

On 6th February this year, I was in India for the Kathakar International Storytelling Festival. I was standing underneath a Peepal tree, an audience of 400 people were buzzing in an open air amphitheatre that struggled to hold them all. I told the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I hadn’t planned on telling it, but Giles Abbot had just told the story of The Loathly Lady and had thus done the hard work of introducing the Arthurian world and most of the characters. Looking back, I feel like Gawain was the perfect story to tell. For all sorts of reasons, but one seems most relevant right now.

There’s a moment in the story where two men kiss. It’s part of an elaborate, courtly game where they’re swapping prizes back and forth. I’ve told this story a lot in the UK and it’s always hard to get the right tone at that moment. But in Delhi that night there was palpable tension and joyous relief. Laughter, yes, but it didn’t feel homophobic. Instead, it felt like we had shared something, had stepped into a taboo place and found that it was not as dangerous as we’d thought.

I didn’t know at the time but while I was packing for the flight to Delhi the Indian Supreme Court had announced that it was going to investigate decriminalising the laws which make homosexuality illegal. The penal code, a product of the British Raj in India, has been the subject of much back and forth over recent years. That was the background against which Gawain and Bertilak pressed their lips together.

In a few weeks time, I’ll be telling The Bed of Arrows at The Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival. It’s a great story, one that I expect I’ll be writing about here a lot in the next few months. It’s a collection of stories from The Mahabharata, an imagined dialogue between Bhisma and Shikhandi after the war is over. At its core, it’s a story about gender identity and transition. About the way the world changes and old institutions – glorious, powerful, magnificent but brutal institutions – collapse and shift.

From wikimedia commons

Bhisma on the bed of arrows

It’s also an Indian story. Some might call it a sacred story.

I’m not Indian. I’m not a Hindu. I’m a white British man. I am a direct descendant of a culture that profited from colonial brutality across the world. At the same time, the message in The Bed of Arrows feels enormously relevant and resonant to the culture I’m living in today, to the times I’m facing. I hope that, just like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was exactly the right story to tell in Delhi, The Bed of Arrows will be exactly the right story to tell at Saint Donats. Right now, that means doing a lot of work in making sure I tell it as well as I can but also being open to the contentious issues that telling this story raises.

If you’re interested in queer Indian myth, I would heartily recommend Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Patanaik. I was given two of his books as a gift by Nisha Tyagi of the British Council. I devoured them as I traveled around India – I can’t remember the last time I picked up a collection of stories, started at the beginning and read them all through in order. Devdutt gently explores the themes in each myth, reflects on what they mean and has inspired me enormously.

If you’re at Beyond the Border, do come and say “Hi.” It’s always good to meet a reader. See you there!


Fringe Guru reviews Rebranding Beelzebub.

Posted: August 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Lizzie Bell from Fringe Guru reviewed Rebranding Beelzebub and gave it a big, fat four stars.

“This is a funny, cleverly-done show that is very much worth seeing: one that will delight, amuse and surprise you by turns. It’s a highly entertaining hour with a top-rate storyteller. If you enjoy tales of supernatural trickery and having a good laugh, this show will suit you perfectly.”

We’re working really hard up here and I’ve been attending a lot of the industry events organised by The Fringe Central. We were planning on writing more reviews but what with three hours of flyering and performing every evening, time has been short.

Last week now! Don’t miss out!

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: 300 to 1

Posted: August 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Following a recommendation, Tim and The Devil go along to see Matt Panesh’s 300 to 1

TIM: So here’s a concept for you, a one man show re-enacting the movie 300 with critical commentary from the ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

THE DEVIL: Intriguing.

TIM: Yes. I think the concept is brilliant and I had high expectations going into the Chamber Room. Luckily that gem of an idea was brought to perfect execution in Matt Panesh’s 300 to 1. A teenage boy, bored at the prospect of having to read First World War poetry for homework, contemplates joining the army. When confronted by Owen and Sassoon, he attempts to justify himself by launching into a testosterone fuelled rendition of 2007 film. Panesh is perhaps better known for his work as the sh*t flinging monkey poet and is something of a staple at The Banshee Labyrinth. He openly embraces the idea that this is a free fringe show, he delights in the low-fi, indie aesthetic. He bounds from character to character as the cast grows steadily larger. He waves his hands and chants “wibbly wobbly” when he needs special effects. And yet, behind the incredibly high-energy irreverence of his performance, is a work that is both genuinely clever and unnecessarily awesome.

THE DEVIL: Yes. It would be very easy to get swept up in the sweaty whirlwind and miss Matt’s attention to detail. He captured the characters he wanted to portray with ease. His slow motion battle scene did a great job of following Gerard Butler’s choreography. The poets provided excellent commentary on the abundant homo-eroticism whilst sniping at the classical references. But I was most impressed at Matt’s subtle skill with manipulating an audience.

TIM: Absolutely! Like the way he built our expectations before the infamous “This is Sparta!” line.

THE DEVIL: And had us writhing in our death throes as Persian arrows rained down.

TIM: For me, the most striking demonstration of how well Panesh steered the audience’s emotional experience came toward the end. He delivered Leonidas’ soliloquy prior to his last stand. His T-shirt was up under his chin, revealing the extra musculature that he’d haphazardly drawn on his scrawny belly. He looked absurd. But he gave that speech with such dignified gravitas and I couldn’t help but feel stirred – a part of me was ready to take up arms and die to defend freedom and reason. And then Sassoon made the teenage boy read dulce et decorum est and the mood in the room turned on a pin.

THE DEVIL: Do you think people need to have seen the film to enjoy it?

TIM: I haven’t seen the film and that didn’t stop me laughing a lot. To be honest, I don’t think it matters too much. Of everything I’ve seen at The Fringe this was probably the most fun. It’s also something that exactly lives up to its pitch. If the idea appeals to you even remotely then you’re going to enjoy what you get. Go!

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: Can’t Care, Won’t Care

Posted: August 8th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Wandering the nether corridors of The Banshee Labyrinth, Tim and The Devil go to see Sophia Walker’s Can’t care, Won’t care

THE DEVIL: Do we do awards? I want to do awards. I want to nominate this for the Philip Pullman prize for the show with the darkest material.

TIM: Quite! The premise is pretty simple. The show casts the audience in the role of a jury hearing evidence on whether or not a care worker is guilty of homicidal negligence after the death of one of her patients.

THE DEVIL: Not “patients.” One of her “service users”. The language is important.

TIM: That phrase still makes me shiver. I don’t know how it manages to be so dehumanising. Anyway, Sophia portrays two characters on stage. One is based on herself and her experiences whilst working in the care system. The other is The State incarnate, a cruel accuser who rattles off her transgressions and reads aloud from the relevant codes of practice. The story focusses on three specific occasions where Sophia either did not or could not act in accordance with these codes of practice. In between these vividly depicted scenes, Walker explores how budget cuts and re-tendering processes make it almost impossible to provide any sort of care at all. Her clear and abundant knowledge of the system is evident in every word and her anger is entirely on display.

THE DEVIL: She was pretty cross. Mind you, the character of The State seemed pretty angry at her for whining and not taking responsibility for what she’d done. Something with which I do tend to empathise.

TIM: I was battered by the end. Walker unloaded both barrels of fury and it was unrelentingly aggressive. There was a little disconnect for me at the end though. The show is framed as being open to the audience to deliberate on their verdict. I just felt that the decision was obvious. I didn’t feel like I had two sides to consider. The State was so unsympathetic that I don’t know how anyone could have decided against the care worker.

THE DEVIL: I don’t agree. She admitted to breaking rules.

TIM: Stupid, impossible rules.

THE DEVIL: I think that’s the point. Anyway. Poetry. Sophia Walker boasts being BBC slam champion and winner of the PBH Best Spoken Word Show of 2013. What did you make of her use of language?

TIM: I was seriously impressed. I need to do a whole blog post on the use of wordplay and the effect it has on the listener experience but suffice to say that Sophia delivered a masterclass. Her use of rhyme never came across as forced, never diminished her credibility or her intensity. Instead, it served to keep me focussed on her performance. I was hooked and re-hooked by her voice. And I was haunted by the ambiguity of it all. Was everything she said true? Did she collate experiences together into one narrative? I think a lot of the power of the piece came from that and I’m glad she didn’t diminish it with explanation.

THE DEVIL: Wrap up?

TIM: There are stories that need to be heard and there are stories that need to be told. This is both. Sophia’s performance feels like a purge. Her frank honesty and poetic craft add art to her vitriol. This was a bitter performance to endure. And that felt entirely fitting.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: Wretch like me

Posted: August 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Tim and the talking serpent he suspects is The Devil attend David Templeton’s Wretch like me (or How I was saved from being saved.)

TIM: This is a storytelling show in which Templeton talks about his lonely childhood and how he was increasingly sucked into the Evangelical Christianity in his teens. He does a good job of painting himself as the “wretch” from the hymn Amazing Grace and then explores the theme of salvation, his role in perpetuating the semi-abusive messages of fundamentalist Christianity and the crisis of faith that lead to him breaking away and finding his own path.

THE DEVIL: And puppetry.

TIM: Yeah, he does talk about how nobody likes a puppeteer. This was a wondrous tragi-comedy, ultimately uplifting but, by God, David puts you through an emotional ringer to get there. Templeton is very skilled at his craft. There are lovely little touches, the salamander that becomes a metaphor, the soft reinforcement of the lamb imagery. And his characterisation is phenomenal. So many of the people in the story are slightly blissed-out Californians and yet David portrays each one as distinct and fully developed: Reverend Dude, Righteous Rick the leader of the school bible club and so many more. I had a chat with him afterwards about the evolution of the show and his quest to find a Director that got what he was trying to do. All very interesting stuff.

THE DEVIL:…

TIM: Hey, what’s up with you today? You’re being very quiet.

THE DEVIL: Conflict of interests. I have a cameo in this story. I appear as a talking fly in the second act. Tell them about how you cried.

TIM: Oh there were tears. It is the mark of great personal storytelling that it goes beyond the confessional and anecdotal and instead touches something universal, something that might be called archetypal. I can’t say for sure how well Wretch like me manages that, but I found this story deeply personally affecting. Perhaps that has something to do with my own spiritual journey. It’s been exactly a year since I was ordained as a Minister. I’ve known plenty of people who have been deeply hurt by religious institutions and Wretch like me resonated keenly. But more than weep, I really wanted to dance. If I’d been a shade less inhibited, I’d have been up at the end dancing in the aisles as Templeton sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of Springsteen’s When I’m out on the street.. I was filled with ecstatic joy.

THE DEVIL: Aw. Would you like a hug?

TIM: Yeah. Yeah, that would be nice.

THE DEVIL: Then go find someone with arms.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: Dandy Darkly’s Pussy Panic

Posted: August 4th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Continuing the theme of shows with expletives in the title, Tim and The Devil go to see Dandy Darkly’s Pussy Panic.

THE DEVIL: Ahh my beloved Dandy. Self-professed to be New York’s satiric and satanic storyteller.

TIM: Yeah, this really felt like it held promise for both of us. I must say I’ve been delighted by the variety of storytelling here at the festival. Dandy is a glittery, gruesome, extravaganza of a spoken-word performer. His show is listed as a cabaret act and that’s the best label going. Pussy Panic is four short stories loosely held together by the idea that Dandy is trying to get over his deep-seated fear of vaginas. It’s hysterical. (Pun intended.) Dandy is just shockingly charming, even as his laugh grates, even as his feathers fly. The wordplay is tight. The soundtrack and folio effects are a wonderful surprise.

THE DEVIL: A lot of people did look round to see the cat that was meowing out of the speaker. The eponymous pussy.

TIM: It was so rude, so irreverently rude. And yet so playful for a show with moments of darkness.

THE DEVIL: Moments of darkness? Two stories ended with suicides. One with bereavement. The other with murder, abhorrent resurrection and a cult of deformed children chanting. And that wasn’t the real darkness.

TIM: No?

THE DEVIL: No. The real darkness wasn’t wrapped up in cabaret. It was in the honest moments of reflection.

TIM: Yes. Dandy affected a caricature of apology when he said he didn’t want his pussy-phobia to offend anyone with or without a vagina. I was a little wary, but the whole topic was handled so cleverly that you could see the deeper sincerity of what he had to say about the presence of misogyny within the gay sub-culture. In that respect it was powerful, nuanced storytelling.

THE DEVIL: I would have liked more satanism though. I didn’t even get a mention.

TIM: You know what I would have liked? More Dandy. He’s such a good performer I feel like he would have excellent rapport and banter with the audience but, because of the tight timeframe and the pre-recorded soundtrack, I didn’t feel like he had space to properly play with us.

THE DEVIL: Oh yes. There’s the take home. “I wanted Dandy to play with me more.” Heh.

TIM: Oh grow up. The take home is that you should fasten your fascinator tightly to your head before going in and re-apply your eyeliner on the way out because Dandy is such a whirlwind of flamboyance that he is going to blow it all the way to Hell. Right. Tomorrow let’s not review something with swear words in the title.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: What the F*ck is This?

Posted: August 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

It should be noted that the show we saw was plagued with technical difficulties including, but not limited to, RTJ having to use an older version of his multimedia presentation. It seems a bit disingenuous to review someone’s show on the basis of such a slip up, so I spoke to RTJ about this review and whether he was happy with me posting it. For balance, this review from Broadwaybaby.com is from a performance of the show at Etcetra Theatre, and might give a better impression of what the show will be like for the rest of the fringe run.

On a high from our first show, I persuaded the Devil we should stay up past our bedtime for Richard Tyrone Jones’ What the F*ck is This?

TIM: Described as the only show at The Fringe where a man stands on stage and says “What the f*ck is this?” for an hour. That’s an apt description. It was also listed in the programme as belonging to the genres of absurdism and multi-media. I was really looking forward to this.

THE DEVIL: Really? And what did you expect?

TIM: Well, I expected some wordplay. I expected “What is this? This is “What the F*ck is This?” is what this is.” And so on. I thought the first five minutes would be witty and entertaining, and that then I’d be bored for ten minutes and that then after that we’d enter some sort of bizarre place of incredible artistry. There was actually slightly less wordplay than I expected, in part because RTJ delivers almost everything in the same high energy, frenetic extreme tone. He uses lots of slides, which range from the surreal to the banal to the comedic to the deliberately provocative. He confronted us with images of terror, abuse. And he engages with the audience a lot, bringing them into the performance.

THE DEVIL: You sat supportively in the front row. Did you expect to find yourself onstage, recreating scenes from fetish pornography while Richard demanded angrily “What the f*ck is this?”

TIM: Not exactly.

THE DEVIL: But you enjoyed it, didn’t you?

TIM: Parts of it I enjoyed immensely. Parts of it bored me. Parts of it made me incredibly uncomfortable – Jones has a habit of making his audiences complicit in some of his most edgey comedy and you could feel the audience caught on the horns last night – We didn’t want to use racially loaded language, for example, but we could tell that if we didn’t play the game, then the show would grind to a halt, that Jones would just stand there, blasting out his mantra, denying us any progression. It was horrible!

THE DEVIL: You could have left. Most of the audience had left by the end. Driven out. You chose to stay. And now you whine about being made complicit. I relished it. It was the Metal Machine Music of spoken word. I relished how painful it was for Richard. I relished how it confused and challenged the few souls who resolved to stay.

TIM: I really liked the ending. That was genius. I was left with the most profound sensation that I had no sense of the limits of the shows, either in terms of audience and performer, but also in terms of when the show was actually over. Jones had left the stage. A few of us, shell shocked as we sat in the front row, were discussing the piece. And then I realised that those at the back were now watching and listening to us. Our deconstruction had become part of the performance. Even outside in what felt a lot like group therapy. Even walking home. I felt like I was still a part of “What the F*ck is this?” A sensation only reinforced because of how hard it is to think about the piece without asking “What the F*ck?”

THE DEVIL: I’m delighted this is on at The Fringe. If you want to boast that you endured something then you should go. If you enjoy discussing a show afterwards more than the actual performance you should go. If you genuinely want to see something different you should go.

TIM: Likewise, if any mention of rape is triggering don’t go. If images of abuse or terrorism are upsetting then you have been warned. If you want to avoid any undertone of racism then it’s not for you. I can’t even say that you’ll leave feeling entertained, which is a shame because the concept is so clever and the moments of genius are sublime. But hey. It’s on the PBH Free Fringe. It’s not like you have to pay to get in.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: Brave and Free

Posted: August 1st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Today we went to the Scottish Storytelling Centre to check out one of the few traditional storytelling acts in the Fringe Programme – Calum Lykan’s Brave and Free

TIM: That was my first time listening to Calum Lykan. We had a good natter before the show and worked out which other storytellers we knew in common. Storytelling is a small world.

THE DEVIL: Where everyone has sideburns, apparently.

TIM: Oh stop sulking. Lykan is working hard this festival, he’s doing his Brave and Free twice a day and then he’s got an extra show with The Free Fringe called In the footsteps of Giants. Brave is old school storytelling, Calum has a good sized repertoire, he waits to see who turns up, he gets into a bit of patter between stories and his set evolves each time in response to his audience. Today there was quite a wide age range across the children in the audience and that put certain restrictions on what he got to tell. But it was all good, Lykan clearly has a deep affection for his material and he’s an energetic, powerful teller. And I had the delight of hearing a few new tales, which is always a treat.

THE DEVIL: …

TIM: Do you really have nothing to say? We’re meant to do these reviews together. If you don’t contribute then I’ll reveal why you’re in such a bad mood.

THE DEVIL: Why don’t you tell them about the spurtles?

TIM: Ah yes, the spurtles! One of the easy traps to fall into with telling isolated short stories is that you can end up visiting a lot of different story worlds. Lykan avoided this by keeping everything tightly tied to the same Scottish landscape. (The one tale he told from outside the Scots tradition he adapted to the setting.) It makes it much easier to carry people for over an hour. I was also particularly impressed with how he re-incorporated imagery from one tale to the next. For example, in one story he featured a man who made spurtles for a living – porridge stirring sticks – and then every other story where porridge was mentioned would reintroduce the spurtle. This recursion of motifs and imagery can be fundamental to feature length pieces, but it’s tricky in a set that is being put together on the fly and Lykan did well.

THE DEVIL: Reincorporated imagery? You liked it because you like the word ‘spurtle’. It appeals to your simple mind.

TIM: And the reason The Devil is in such a bad mood is because he noticed how careful Lykan was being to ensure his kilt didn’t lift up as he span, so he snuck onto stage to try and catch a peek at some authentic Scottish undergarments. But Calum was so animated in his telling that he stamped on Satan’s tail in his enormous stompy boots. And now the Infernal Majesty is bruised.

THE DEVIL: I think it’s broken, actually. I may not be able to make our opening night tomorrow.

TIM: For me, Brave and Free was like something out of my childhood. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a storyteller just tell some stories without trying to fashion things together into a show. It’s nice to recall how important repertoire is to the storytelling craft. And, because this is exactly the form of storytelling that I first encountered as a child, it was a pleasure to be in the audience with children of about the same age as I was back then.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Review: The Splitting of the Mermaid

Posted: July 31st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Here we are at the Edinburgh Fringe and the first show the Devil and I went to see was a preview of Lucy Ayrton’s The Splitting of the Mermaid.

TIM : This was a performance so much my cup of tea that it could have been served in a mug with my name on it. Ayrton updates Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to industrial Hull and takes us from a startlingly totalitarian undersea world to a mechanic’s shop by the promenade. The central character is May, a mermaid longing to bear and raise her own child. She sells her voice to a Sea Witch in exchange for her chance at happiness. But (just like the original) there are prices, conditions and looming tragedy.

Ayrton’s background is as a performance poet and the ease and confidence with which she works her wordplay is amazing. Her rhymes are fresh and vital. As someone approaching this from a performance storyteller’s perspective, I was deeply impressed by her craft. I was also delighted by her staging: simple tricks of light to denote being above or below water or the rising of the sun, and the constant bubbling, musical soundtrack from Superbard.

THE DEVIL: Her Sea Witch had a lurid purple spotlight to denote her undersea hovel. Why don’t I have a special effect in our show?

TIM: Because you are literally a talking snake. You don’t need a special effect.

THE DEVIL: And because you’re cheap.

TIM: Was that your favourite moment, the scene where May makes a deal with the Sea Witch?

THE DEVIL: Hmm. I really liked the bit where they went to Whitby for fish and chips. It felt so laughably mortal. But now I’m hungry. Can we get on with it?

TIM: Of course. There were a few moments where Ayrton’s staging was off, characters switching from right to left as they spoke to one another, but as this was her first preview show in the venue I suspect she’ll have that nailed by the main run. The narrative was gorgeous, and while this is going to be rightly hailed as a feminist piece I was particularly moved by Ayrton’s gentle take on masculine sexuality, devotion and friendship.

THE DEVIL: Actually, I’ve changed my mind about my favourite bit. Andersen’s original has a horrible piece of tagged-on moralising at the end where the Little Mermaid can regain her shape if she does good deeds for 300 years. Or some such vomit-inducing twaddle. My favourite bit was that Lucy got rid of that entirely and left us with some far more artistically credible mer-human drama.

TIM: Good point! Overall, I’d say if spoken word narrative is remotely your thing then this is one to catch at the Fringe in 2014.

Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.


Jaminaround 2014

Posted: June 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Blog | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Just got back from Jaminaround 2014, a great little festival in Dorset that takes place in the Ancient Technology Centre. I’ve heard a lot about that place and it was wonderful to finally visit.

Here’s me telling Princess Vasilisa and the Firebird. in the roundhouse.

Photo by Jo Stephen

Photo by Jo Stephen