INTERVIEW: Nick Hennessey | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Alongside other members of London’s Crick Crack Club, Nick Hennessey has made a name for himself as a storyteller, musician and epic poet. His works are often inspired by the Finnish epic The Kalevala, and his production Where The Bear Sleeps – which comes to Northern Stage this week – is no different.

Where The Bear Sleeps merges myth, epics and fairy tales to transport the audience to the dark, snow-covered north of Finland, a land where the sun and moon are fought over and magic is weaved through bizarre ordeals, magnificent transformations and misguided passions. It’s everything you could want in a story and more.

Ahead of his appearance at Northern Stage on Wednesday, I talked to Nick about his life as a storyteller, winning competitions and the performance itself.

You came to storytelling whilst undertaking a PhD in Cultural Geography. What encouraged you to take the leap from the road to being a professor to being a storyteller?

The subject matter I was studying was really interesting. The relationship between place, culture and community had been something that was working away in my life since I was a child in Alderley Edge. When I encountered storytelling as study matter I instantly recognised the potential of it to explore themes of identity and self and sense of place. Instead of studying it through the rarified prism (or ivory tower) of academia, I really wanted to be part of it, not removed from it. So the step was quite a natural one really. I guess you could say I went native!

Tell us a bit about Where The Bear Sleeps; what can you tell us about the performance?

Where the Bear Sleeps is a performance of two halves that tells some of the stories from the Finnish national epic The Kalevala. The material is epic by nature and mythological in content.

You sing and play the harp as well as tell stories; do these elements feed into Where The Bear Sleeps at all?

Yes, definitely. The Kalevala is traditionally an epic-singing form, and the power of song is thematically very important in the stories, so I use song a great deal of song in one form or another. Equally, the Finnish national instrument is the kantele, a harp-like instrument which is also essential to the content of the stories. Whilst I can’t play the kantele (I have some amazing Finnish friends who have doctoral qualifications in playing it) I can play the harp, drawing on the Finnish modal and melodic characteristics, to create an effect.

Where The Bear Sleeps is only one of a series of works that you perform from the Kalevala; what attracts you to this Finnish epic in particular?

The Kalevala arguably contains some of the oldest stories in Northern Europe. Some of the material is believed to have its origins some 5000 years ago, rooted in a hunter-gatherer culture. As a storyteller, to be working with material that spans so much of human history is very exciting, particularly when it becomes clear how relevant it is today. We are, whatever we may like to think, basically the same as we were 5000 years ago.

nick hennessey 2

“We are, whatever we may like to think, basically the same as we were 5000 years ago”

Back in 2000, you entered the world championship of epic singing and won! Was that a major factor in you going to produce works based on the Kalevala?

Yes! I had already begun to work with the material at that point, but was wondering how I might perform it in English. Winning the competition was like receiving a Finnish blessing for my interest in working with the stories. From there I gathered courage and continued.

You work a lot with the Crick Crack Club, who are one of the UK’s foremost storytelling collectives. What is it like to be part of such a thriving storytelling community?

I wouldn’t say that storytelling rooted in the oral tradition is thriving in the UK, and indeed much of the storytelling we hear about today is actually just the written word being spoken. But to be part of The Crick Crack Club is an opportunity to celebrate with like-minded artists the sheer power of the oral traditions of the world, to acknowledge the potency of language, image and story that have come down to us through generations. Modern society is preoccupied with the new and the innovative, and often dismisses traditional storytelling as out-dated without realising that every performance IS brand new, because the story only exists for the length of the telling and then it is gone, to be freshly minted with each retelling. A good storyteller can lead everyone into the heart of the story.

Storytelling is sometimes seen as an antiquated or old-fashioned practice and yet the tradition is very much alive and well. Why do you think the oral tradition has stood the test of time?

The themes that traditional stories address are, by nature of their generational transmission, deep and essential. The language is at once metaphorical, shimmering with symbolism, yet also very down-to-earth. The codes in which traditional stories speak are universal, the language of dreams, and as such always have and always will speak to us directly.

To you, what makes a great storyteller?

The storyteller’s job is to disappear, to serve the story first and foremost, and then to allow the material to flower in the mind of the listener. This is the sole purpose of good storytelling.

What have you got planned for the future?

I have a UK tour in the Autumn of Fire in the North Sky, a Kalevala collaboration with some astounding Finnish musicians. We will be up and down the country for ten days or so in early October, including the Sage Gateshead. I have another show called Barbed Wire for Kisses, which tells the story of an imagined village in Lincolnshire through the years of the Great War. And then I have various other solo and collaborative performances throughout the year. More information can be found on my website.

Where the Bear Sleeps comes to Northern Stage, Newcastle on Wednesday 13th May.

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