Tree of Leaf and Flame

On Saturday last (8th Feb) I went to see a fantastic storytelling performance in Postlip Hall, just north of Cheltenham with my partner Chantelle. It was a suitably dark and stormy night when we set off – and the venue added to the atmosphere of the show as well… Negotiating a long rutted, tree-lined track we arrived at a country manor (now a community of shared home-owners). Inside a stone-hewn hall a large fire crackled in a capacious burner. A makeshift bar in the kitchen served very reasonably priced wines and ales, plus a table for CDs and books. The resident cat – a dashing fellow with a white flash on his chest – was doing the ‘meet and greet’. With my pint of Gem we settled down as the show began.

Daniel Morden is one of Britain’s top storytellers – performing with master teller Hugh Lupton in epic retellings of The Odyssey and The Iliad (which I saw in a packed Guildhall in Bath as part of the Literature Festival) as well as with his ‘Devil’s Violin’ troupe (the last time I saw him was performing their eponymous show at the Cadbury’s Factory social club in Keynsham). Tonight he graciously introduced himself and his fellow performers (Oliver Wilson-Dickson on Violin; and Dylan Fowler on Guitar) as a ‘three-headed, six-legged storyteller’, i.e. it was a team effort, and the tales they would weave were to be told as much through the music as through his words. And weave a spell they did – in a mesmerising first half. Daniel’s powerful, punchy delivery related the dark tale of Llew Llaw Gyffes and his flower-bride, Blodeuwedd – a tour-de-force which played well on the merciless symmetries of the material. Every action has its consequence – and the karmic clock kept on ticking throughout the other stories – the main sequence relating the travails of Pwyll and Rhiannon, from their wooing to their woe. This multi-layered story (one of the Four Branches of the ancient collection of tales popularly called the Mabinogion, or Y Mabinogi, in Welsh) was split across the break – allowing the audiences to recharge their glasses, stretch their legs (or wait out in the chilly rain for the gents), and chat (I said hello to Daniel and he remembered me from the ‘chocolate factory’ – ‘Must be a storyteller,’ I quipped. What a memory!).

After the break, the musicians led us back into the magic with a haunting song. Daniel got the audience laughing as the protagonists Pwyll and Pryderi tried their luck in mean-hearted English towns – some welcome comic relief in this dour material. Before the break, a war-torn survivor of a massacre expressed sentiments which echoed down the centuries – especially in the year the First World War centenary commemorations commence. Such stories are universal and timeless and don’t need contemporising to have relevance Daniel and I both agreed afterwards.

When these obscure, ancient stories are told this well they shake off their dust, untangle themselves, and seem lucid and vital. Any good performance of Shakespeare does the same.

Seeing such high quality performances re-energises my belief in the power of the medium, and rekindles my interest in these dark Welsh tales – the very first ones I learnt. It feels like coming home.


The Devil’s Violin Co. are touring The Tree of Leaf and Flame – catch it while you


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