By Greg Volz
The Sydney Theatre was packed to the rafters on Tuesday evening as Daniel Morden delivered the opening address, A Ghost at My Shoulder. Described as one of Europe’s greatest storytellers, he didn’t disappoint, delivering in spades on the Festival’s story telling theme.
Astride a stage bare of props and dressed simply, Welsh-born the writer made full use of the tools of his trade – tone of voice, pitch, simple gestures, power of story. Occasionally he prowled the stage as he took the audience deeper into a story.
As expected, the stories themselves came from far and wide. There was Cowtail Switch, a West African tale about a man brought back from the dead by his sons. A haunting but beautiful love story, Clean water, dirty water had its origins in Haiti. Mr Morden went there through a charity, collecting stories from children. Classic tales from Greek mythology mixed with modern day stories about the storytellers, in war torn Dubrovnik.
The title of Daniel Morden’s address was a reference to the first story of the night. A story of stories that started in Scotland, about Jimmy, a most reluctant storyteller. He described how the woman who told the tale said whenever she told it, she felt a presence over her shoulder.
“The presence was the ghost of the person who told her the story, making sure she told it properly,” he said. “Now presumably, over the shoulder of the ghost, there was another ghost, and another, stretching back as long as there had been people on the earth”.
But Daniel Morden is more than just a storyteller. He is also a passionate spokesman for the power of story, the benefits it brings, the fundamental role it plays in our lives.
“Our understanding of our lives emerges through stories,” he said. “We reassemble memories, insert more depth, unconsciously opening things at certain moments, and unconsciously embellishing others.”
He said it is human nature to make patterns and forms from random data. To the amusement of the audience, he used his son’s behaviour on the potty to illustrate the point. “He would stand up from the potty, look into the contents and say ’look, it’s a helicopter’.”
The writer is renowned for his work with children. His most recent work, Tree of Leaf and Flame, retells a famous set of Welsh tales, known as the Four Branches of The Mabinogi, for children. He fascinated the crowd by relaying his experiences retelling Homer’s classic, The Iliad, to primary school children. He described the story of the Greeks and Trojans, Achilles and Hector, as a tale of war.
“It is the war story that should be told as loudly as possible,” he said. The consequences of not telling it, he argued, was that those who were telling another story, “the version that sends our young people to war”, might be the only voices that end up being heard.
Artistic Director Jemma Birrell introduced the audience to Morden. A clearly delighted Jemma returned to the stage at the end of his address to thank him. So, how did the audience find an evening with Daniel Morden? Perhaps the best description came from a voice in the crowd, as it spilled out to the street after the show. “Now, that was storytelling on a grand scale.”