Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: 'The Fate We Bring Ourselves' at the Crouch End Arthouse, 24th February 2017

The Fate We Bring Ourselves reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

If there's one golden rule in mythology, it's that you never screw around with the gods. Not only are they immortals who can do whatever the hell they like, but they've got seriously sadistic imaginations. Even worse, the lives of us mortals are dust in the wind compared to their magnificence. 

I've been a fan of Greek mythology ever since someone gave me an illustrated book as a child. There's something attractive about the combination of bizarre ancient moral standards, realising what various things are alluding to and the simple pleasures of the soap opera shenanigans that go on in Mount Olympus. But there's a hell of a lot of Greek myths they don't put in children's books: the gory, the sexual or the just plain bonkers.

Enter Ben Haggarty. He's in the upper echelons of performance storytelling: weaving together precise oratory, a striking physical presence and an uncanny knack for improvisation. One of the more magnetic (and slightly intimidating) performers I've seen in a while, the moment Haggarty opens his mouth he has the audience in the palm of his hand. Then, slowly, he closes that palm into a fist, squeezing us, cranking up the tension, etching vivid pictures into our imagination.

Tonight's quartet of stories is particularly vivid. The theme is choice, more specifically the danger of making the wrong choices. We begin with a parable of an ancient blind family. A husband, wife and their mothers live a happy, mutually supportive existence in a community. Their calm is broken by the reverberations of distant war; a lack of men causing the harvests to fail. With the spectre of famine raising its head, the villagers cast out "those without a future".

And so the blind family are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. It's going to be a story with a bleak ending, until the husband trips over a mysterious bag on the ground. Reaching around inside he finds slick, spherical objects and, for reasons known only to him, pops one in his empty eyesocket. It miraculously grants him sight. He pops another next to it, then sorts out his wife and begins to dish them out to their mothers. But here's the rub:  there's eight eyesockets and only seven eyeballs. The man must make a careful choice - whose mother will remain a cyclops?

Now, we're unlikely to ever have to make this exact choice, but life offers plenty of tricky decisions. Sometimes you feel like you're standing at a fork in the road, one way leading towards a happy life of sunshine and roses, the other towards misery and destruction. And you have no way of telling which is which. The three myths that follow are examples of people making the wrong call. 

First is the myth of Actaeon and Artemis, in which a hunter happens across the goddess and her nymphs bathing nude in a pool. He decides to silently observe, becoming the first mortal ever to see the goddess' naked beauty. That achievement is scant consolation to Actaeon though, who is turned into a stag by an angry Artemis and subsequently devoured by his own hunting hounds. Next up is the myth of Erysichthon of Thessaly, a King who makes the fateful decides to chop down a grove of trees sacred to Demeter and is cursed with insatiable hunger. Last comes the tangled tale of the (double) birth of Dionysus, which involves killer clowns, Zeus incubating a foetus in his ballsack and a poor young woman being completely vaporised by Zeus' atomic strength ejaculation.

Lessons learned? Think before you act and don't fuck with the gods (and if you see Hera coming down the street be sure to cross the road). Though fantastically delivered, the connective tissue of 'choice' sometimes feels a bit flimsy, but in face of such great storytelling this feels like quibbling.

My favourite bits come when we begin to approach the horrifying or the cruel. The delivery slows down, giving us ample opportunity to anticipate what's to come next. Here, Haggarty is like a boxer shifting his weight backward before unleashing a knockout blow. When he delivers the imagery whacks into you with considerable impact - every syllable of the goriest passages conjuring up hideous mental pictures. 

Ben Haggarty is a monumentally effective storyteller: the kind of man who'd be as at home on a Crouch End stage as around a medieval bonfire or a Roman forum. The Crick Crack Club continues to remind me of the power of unadorned storytelling - of letting yourself be lost in a forest of words, giving yourself up to the sheer primeval power of the human imagination. 

For more of the Crick Crack Club, see their website.

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