Pros: With skills rarely showcased in the West End, Katy Cawkwell is an expert storyteller worth seeking out.
Cons: Uncomfortable seating arrangements kept me fidgeting throughout the night; apologies to Katy and the audience for this, but my lower back was desperate for relief!
I am often impressed in the theatre by actors, set designers, directors and writers, but rarely do I expect to come away from a show in awe of an individual’s power to speak. To tell a story. Straight. For about an hour and a half. Could you talk for 90 minutes to a room full of people without the support of a set, a band, other cast members and props? Maybe you could, but would it be any good? Would the audience take an interest in your story, engage with your characters and anticipate the resolution? I’m not so sure they would, unless like Katy Cawkwell you are a storyteller by profession and have the power to conjure images and characters with words and words alone. No easy feat.
In The Falcon Bride Katy narrates a story derived from Njal’s Saga, an Icelandic epic in the literary canon not so different from the classics of Homer and Virgil in terms of both style and size. Though complex in terms of the sheer number of characters and threads to the story, Katy’s clear composition makes everything easy to follow.
The pace is just right and even though my eyes and ears are unpractised in following a single voice, the story was both compelling and gripping. At no point did my interest wane, and how could it with sex, marriage, death, revenge and murderous farmers on the menu? (They really don’t make farmers like they used to, do they? I blame the softening influence of agricultural college.) One very memorable character, Hallgerd, features as a merciless beauty who accumulates husbands in the manner of Elizabeth Taylor, but with far more cunning and a lot less love. Interludes of Icelandic singing punctuate Katy’s spoken rendition, adding a nice bit of authenticity and variation.
Katy looks appropriately Scandinavian in a pretty white dress. The set, however, is completely bare. A tiered shelving unit at the back, which might have been the same thing I was sitting on, gave the stage a neutral backdrop to physically insulate the storyteller on her simple platform. The oral tradition that The Falcon Bride revives demands low-tech, and the naked set works spectacularly well.
However, with regards to the benches for the audience I wish they’d stayed out of the thirteenth century and opted for a more lavish seat. Given the lack of back support I was pretty uncomfortable, and found myself fidgeting about in a rather obnoxious ‘look how crap this seat is’ way. I also had my coat on throughout as the recently installed air conditioning has taken Soho Upstairs from one extreme to the other. Notwithstanding my discomfort in this particular instance, I do love to visit Soho Theatre, and the lively bar downstairs is always great post-show venue for examining what you’ve just seen.
Even though this occasion didn’t deliver the velvet embroidered chaise longue us regular theatre goers dream of, it did deliver a fantastic story. It was great to experience theatre in a different way, and I’d definitely be keen to hear more from Katy. Just as long as I get a cushion next time.