A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

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In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?


Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

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Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018



My kind of Shakespeare

Every so often a new Shakespeare Companion comes along. If you’re like me you’ll have had times in your life when Shakespeare’s appeared on your stage a lot, and times when you’re Shakespeare-lite – very young children put an end to theatre going for a while, for example, but as they grew up it seemed as important to tell them about Shakespeare as it was to go swimming and encourage playing a musical instrument. 61o9iu2bugfl-_sx394_bo1204203200_The Shakespeare companion my parents gave me was Twenty Tales from Shakespeare which amazingly is still available from secondhand booksellers. It had Richard Burton in moody black and white on the front cover, and gave succinct plot summaries with well chosen quotes from the most popular plays. For my children I bought Marcia William‘s beautiful comic strip versions, and found it did me no harm before seeing a play to sneak a quick plot update or remind myself of a juicy scene or speech to look out for.

Apart from luxuriating in the beauty and appositeness  of the language, we all use Shakespeare for our own ends. He helped me defend school children earlier this year, against the reductive iniquity of SATs testing. (I may call him out soon on the Remain side.) He provides quotes for politicians (of all types, unfortunately), and backs up war leaders (think how Churchill used Henry V for propaganda in World War II). He gives a voice to women’s equality: currently London has Harriet Walter as Prospero and Glenda Jackson as King Lear. He could keep A level English publishers going single handed; most of us have old annotated copies on our shelves. (Hoping I don’t sound too nerdy, it’s worth the effort deciphering Shakespeare and fast becomes an enjoyment in itself.) He’s even there for culturally philistine profiteers, among the highest selling tea towel/fridge magnet/iphone covers in the UK tourist industry. (Unverified data, btw.)

Last week I was reading the newest companion to join the group, Beth Miller’s For the Love of Shakespeare. There’s the usual content: simplified plots, nutshell summaries, the words and phrases Shakespeare gave to English, the debate about sources and authorship, different interpretations people have given down the ages  from all cultures and in all languages and media. What I liked best were the interviews with people who work with Shakespeare, and so with her permission I’ve taken her questions and interviewed myself. I hope it inspires you to interview YOURselves too.

What was your switch-on moment?

Aged about nine, I had a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s Flowers which is still in print (an excellent Christmas gift). It contained part of the fairy’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a detailed illustration of a cowslip. At the risk of stereotyping little girls, it had everything one could want: gold, jewels, flowers, fairies, dewdrops…

Cowslip page from “Shakespeare’s Flowers”
 …I do wander everywhere
 Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
 And I serve the fairy queen
 To dew her orbs upon the green.
 The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
 In their gold coats spots you see.
 Those be rubies, fairy favors.
 In those freckles live their savors.
 I must go seek some dewdrops here
 And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear…
I learnt it by heart!

Which is your favourite of Shakespeare’s plays?

The Merchant of Venice. I grew up in North London. All my school friends were Jewish; most had lost their grandparents in the Holocaust. When I was 11, my parents took me to see an elderly Laurence Olivier as Shylock and took care to explain the play need not be seen as anti semitic if you listen to Shylock’s great speech: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Here’s a long aside: my father kept a file of notes on every play he ever saw in his life, and clearly didn’t think as highly of the performance as I did. But then he’d seen Olivier as a young screen idol at the height of his powers.

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, by William Shakespeare,Old Vic,SE1,6.1.53(1st night), cast including Claire Bloom,Douglas Campbell. Hugh Hunt directed.I almost knew it by heart from having done it at school. Came over well.

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE  Stratford,SMT,28.8.53,Peggy Ashcroft,Donald  Pleasance,Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw, Denis Carey(d) “Impeccable production. No director’s quirks.  Dame Peggy enchanting.”

468px-shakespeareMERCHANT OF VENICE,THE. Old Vic(NT)SE1,1.5.70.Anna Carteret, Derek Jacobi,Jane Lapotaire,Laurence Olivier,Joan Plowright . Jonathan Miller (d) “Rather tiresome because it was set in Victorian times which added nothing at all.Olivier did a version of his famous Oedipus roar at the end.”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE, Stratford(SMT).4.71.,Judi Dench,Derek Godfrey,Terry Hands(d) “Don’t remember it but it must have impressed at the time because, back at the hotel, we talked about  it until the early morning.”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE  Old Vic,SE1,13.11.80.,Maureen O’Brien, Timothy West,   Michael Meacham(d) “Run of the mill”

MERCHANT OF VENICE,THE Olivier,SE1,8.3.00.,David Bamber,Derbhle Crotty,Henry Goodman,Alexander Hanson,Richard Henders, Trevor Nunn(d) “Splendidly done at a good pace. It was like discovering it for the first time.” This comment is so telling. After seeing his first performance aged 26, and four more with the best actors of their time, Shakespeare’s Merchant still had something to offer my father at a sixth visit when he was 73.

Tell us about the most memorable performance you’ve seen.

Comedy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Oddsocks Theatre Co in Valentine’s Park, Ilford – my children’s first Shakespeare outing too, I think. Sirens blasted past on the main road as the lost couples were chasing each other through the “woods” (actually the municipal shrubbery) and quick as a flash, one actor quipped: “See – even the police have come out to search!”

Tragedy: I was mesmerised by a television film of a production of Hamlet with David Tennant. I hadn’t realised what good actor he was until then – I think it was Boxing Day and despite being stuffed and sleepy I stayed with it to the (bitter) end.51srkjph8sl-_sx326_bo1204203200_

Which Shakespeare character would you most like to meet?

Poor Desdemona, the original domestic violence victim. For selfish reasons: I’d get her to sing to me, her Willow Song aria from the Verdi opera Otello.To hear her sing this as she waits for the death she knows is coming is one of the most poignant marriages of theatre and music anywhere.

How would you persuade somebody to give Shakespeare a chance?

I used to teach English as a Second Language in a Sheffield secondary school. At the time, many pupils had just arrived from Pakistan and Bangladesh speaking no English. I showed them films, stopping from time to time for discussion. Roman Polanski’s bloody, haunting Macbeth went down a treat! There are so many brilliant film versions, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Derek Jarman’s Tempest, the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado and Henry 5th… Or try a live production by Oddsocks – see above. Fringe or theatre-in-education companies are often the best at making Shakespeare accessible.

I’ve allowed myself much longer answers than the ones in Beth Miller’s book. But do look at it; much of it is new and interesting. Note the Globe staff member responsible for helping disabled audiences members access Shakespeare, for example, or Richard Burton complaining about Churchill in the front row when he was playing Hamlet. Churchill rumbled the lines along with him. “I could not shake him off, I tried going fast, I tried going slow…”

“Our revels now are ended.”  An ending pinched from Shakespeare, via Beth Miller. I hope this post has reminded you of your own best Shakespeare moments, and tempted you to book seats for some more.

“For the Love of Shakespeare”, a quality small hardback with integrated bookmark.

© Jessica Norrie 2016