A small army of gods stands at the edge of a river, grasping at a salmon which dips and dives, teasing them. When they finally catch it, the fish turns into a boy with bright eyes and red hair: Loki, who tricked blind Hodr into killing his brother – Baldr, the god of light – with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. Later, a wolf swallows the sun and the nine worlds come to an end.
The woman telling the story is dressed in black, standing with a drum on an empty stage. Her name is Emily Parrish and she does this for a living. We’re listening to her on fold-up chairs on the top floor of an old warehouse in South London, in a bare room with plaster coming off the walls.
This is the second year of Fairytales for Grown-Ups at the Bargehouse (from 11 to 15 December). It’s organised by the Crick Crack Club, which is named after a Haitian storytelling call and response. Teller: ‘Crick?’ Audience: ‘Crack!’ Teller: ‘Honour?’ Audience: ‘Respect!’ Ben Haggarty, the founder of the club, says he isn’t sure who or what is being honoured and respected. He’s been telling stories for a living since 1981.
Every performance is a ‘re-creation’. Not only are the words different, but body language, tone and the speed of narration vary according to what the audience responds to. Sometimes, Haggarty told me, you can surprise yourself by telling a story you’ve known a long time through the eyes of a character who’s usually just part of the scenery. He sees the texts of early epics as ‘crafted notes’, mnemonic aids with gaps for storyteller and audience to fill in.
Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups emerged in part from Haggarty’s distaste for contemporary, sanitised versions aimed at children, with ‘illustrations that are as bland as wrapping paper’ and have ‘no link to the figurative intensity of dreams’. The stories that he and his Crick Crack colleagues tell are often shadowy and mysterious. Some are new, like Haggarty’s ‘Mr Sandmann: Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares’, which draws on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffman, Cain and Abel and the unresolved conflicts of the American south. Mostly though, they resurrect old tales. Mezolith, Haggarty’s graphic novel, is set in Britain before it was an island, with characters from a hunter-gatherer society. He calls it ‘an exploration of the archaeology of the imagination’ because its stories are drawn from those in current circulation that could plausibly have been told in such a setting.
Parrish interrupts Loki’s tale with bursts of Old Norse singing and anecdotes of a family camping holiday she went on when she was 11. For these asides she moves to the corner of the stage, smiles, adopts a more conversational tone. It’s an impressive and disturbing ‘re-creation’. Crick? Crack!