Edinburgh audiences aren’t well known for their vociferous responses. They applaud and call out ‘bravo’ in clipped Morningside tones, and occasionally let out a delicate whoop. So when Nick Barley challenged the gathered throng in The Spiegeltent to respond to the two women about to perform with similar enthusiasm to that which he experienced when seeing them in Africa, the gauntlet was well and truly thrown.
With whipped up enthusiasm they welcomed the first storyteller: Maimouna Jallow.
Her exuberance and connection was enough to transform the room into at least some semblance of the joyful noise she is used to, and the extraordinarily candid telling of her tales of polygamy were, perhaps, too much for one mother and her two children (I suspect the language of ‘pounding’ went straight over the kids’ heads, but hey – this is Edinburgh.)
Next was Mara Menzies, a well-known name as a local storyteller, who whipped up a similar welcome from the audience, ululating as she strutted through the auditorium onto the stage. With audience participation more redolent of the Fringe, this was closer to the sort of entertainment that goes on in this same tent at 9pm, for the Unbound events.
I hate to be a moaner, but the decision to increase the capacity in The Spiegeltent has changed the feel of this wonderful venue. With cabaret-style seating around tables rather than chairs set out in rows, the former layout would have suited this performance better.
That said, the central part of the event was a fascinating discussion between Nick and the two women, covering everything from the storytelling traditions of Africa and Scotland (Mara Menzies – you might deduce from her name – straddles both) and some of the thornier subjects such as the remnants of imperialism and attitudes towards polygamy.
What’s important, and what Mara and Maimouna (we feel on first-name terms by now) emphasise admirably is that they evoke the voice of the people who experience what they are portraying. It’s the old adage of show, don’t tell. This way, we get to see nuances through the perspectives of those who live these stories.
Nick asks if there is respect for indigenous voices. Maimouna’s response illustrates how religion, in particular fundamentalism, can be so disrespectful and suppressing; Mara emphasises the need to challenge the old-fashioned perception that story-telling isn’t exciting. They’ve already proven that it is.
But with the audience now quietened, I heard the sound of the most irritating audience-reaction, straight out of the camp of student open-mic and poetry slams: finger-clicking. Oh Edinburgh. Thankfully, after the discussion, we are treated to two more stories, full of vigour, and told with enough passion to quell the clicking of middle-class fingers, leaving the audience whooping and cheering. Something you don’t often hear in Charlotte Square.
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