Brighton Fringe 2012
"A storm rages; a child is born; a secret uncovered; a power evoked. An intricate web of tales woven around the ancient Welsh poem that inspired Tolkein and Shakespeare." Christine Cooper combines music, storytelling and a bit of theatre in a show that looks beyond the poem, at trees, at life, and her own personal journey.
Christine Cooper created and performed Battle of the Trees. We are taken back to the time when the Saxons were invading Britain and Vortigen fled into the apparent safety of Wales. This is a piece of storytelling that weaves different stories together – from ancient to recent past, to present. From a famous author, to an ancient King, to Cooper herself.
She plays violin. sings and weaves the strands of different stories together with the Battle for the Trees as the binding cord. Some of these narrative threads include her own tale, medieval history, Robert Graves and JRR Tolkien who took inspiration for this poem for his "Ents" in Lord of the Rings.
Reviewed as storytelling this is a fine storyteller, engaging and calmly in command of the piece. The style is direct and unfussy as Christine Cooper leads us through the 1987 hurricane when six of Sevenoaks’ oaks fell.
I’m glad to see storytelling of this accomplished quality coming to the Brighton Fringe and the sell-out audience, many of whom hailed from the Brighton storytelling community, appreciated and enjoyed it immensely.
This isn’t theatre. This is storytelling with theatre elements. It’s more recognisable in this form to the storytelling community than the theatre going public who might feel short changed in the realms of acting and stagecraft. And the chosen venue doesn’t help – an ill-defined, badly lit stage.
I suggest you don’t bring fringe theatre expectations to this as an audience member. Enjoy the cleverly crafted and often eloquent writing. Enjoy the interplay of music which Cooper often skilfully applies in tandem with the story. Enjoy the research that has gone into this. And enjoy the different levels of the performance, as story weaves with story into a satisfying whole. You’ll have to lean forward and give it your attention for this is the Latest Music Bar and it’s really stretching things for this to be a natural home for storytelling.
Cooper talks conversationally, switching style when she shifts story. She adopts classic storytelling tones when she tells an old tale or a myth, and then she’s back, chatting to us like an old friend. We hear the story of the story behind this show. And we reach the moment when she discovers beautiful leather bound copies of the Four Ancient Books of Wales. In one she finds The Battle of the Trees, an unique and ancient Welsh poem, ‘preserved in the 14th-century manuscript known as the Book of Taliesin’. The poem tells the story of the legendary enchanter Gwydion who brings to animated life the trees of the forest to fight as his army.
I’m going to suggest that, even as storytelling, there are so many elements pertinent to theatre here: recitation, poetry, music, even a bit of physical acting, that what is needed here is for Cooper to accept a bit of direction and even some dramaturgy. Some editing of the script, and some finessing of the performance element could lift this into the sublime. As it stands it is a little out of place in a theatre venue, would shine better in the semi round, but is eminently watchable, atmospheric, interesting and in places moving just as it is. So, where does it want to sit when it plays theatre spaces to theatre audiences? That’s the challenge I think.
But at the heart of this stands a charismatic and highly skilled teller of tales – musician to boot – and a lattice of stories that are woven together into something quite special.