York Theatre Royal
It is interesting that while storytelling is a fundamental part of our language, we do not quite fully recognise the distinction of this spoken art. Not every actor is a storyteller, and not every storyteller is an actor. And we, as the storyteller's audience, are required to contribute our active imaginations as well. We have become accustomed to viewing our stories (on television, film and theatre) with so much of the visual 'trimmings' provided, that perhaps today we understand less of what it means to be the audience of a truly great storyteller.
Xanthe Gresham is one such storyteller. Gresham, accompanied by the music and Kurdish words of Zirak Hamad, tells the story of a group of Kurdish asylum seekers making their way to Europe. Along the way they must endure hardship, fear, hunger, exhaustion and abuse - in order to do this they tell stories. Wrapped in the story of the girlfriend left behind, comes the story of the travellers, who in turn tell stories of courage, death, enlightenment and love to encourage them on their way. Gresham is a composite storyteller who unwraps each story like the petals of a lotus flower. At the end of the evening you leave with something beautiful created in your own mind. Her sparky energy conjures visionary delights like a storytelling genie who has just jumped from her bottle to open the doorway into your imagination.
Of course, in this story Gresham and Hamad address something more than just our imagination. Through storytelling we construct our identity, and Gresham's piece looks at a people whose identity has been systematically suppressed. In 1935 Kurdistan was divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, with the Kurdish culture and language denied. 'The Kurdish people have been tortured, killed and subjected to chemical genocide,' Gresham writes in the programme. Kurdistan is a country trampled upon, with no flag, no representation and no recognition allowed. Highlighting this issue and that of the homelessness of the Kurds, Gresham and Hamad ask where home is for the immigrant who seeks asylum.
Hamad's evocative drumming, violin and Kurdish songs create the atmosphere of these people better than any theatre set could possibly hope to. And designer Emma Thompson's simple, functional set of boxes, a table, paper and squares of fabric give the two inventive performers enough material to create mountains, boats, jewels, dust, prisons and much, much more. Director Juliet Foster presents a short and compelling piece that appeals to the imaginative audience. She showcases these two excellent performers to profound effect, with Gresham giving the matchless art of storytelling pride of place. We can only hope she returns to York soon.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys