Adverse Camber production company heads to the Yorkshire Dales this month with The Shahnameh: the Epic Book of Kings.The Shahnameh was written by the Iranian poet Ferdowsi over 1,000 years ago and stretches from the beginning of time to the 7th century fall of the Persian Empire. Master storyteller Xanthe Gresham-Knight writes about performing a hand-picked selection of these stories to the sounds of virtuoso Kurdish Iranian musician Arash Moradi.
I was born in Derby and lived there happily until I was 18. My father was a mining engineer for Rolls-Royce and my mother a primary school teacher. My father died when I was four. He was a scientist and a geologist and I’ve recently inherited his letters. He sounds fascinating. I’d love to have known him. The experience of reading the letters knocks me off my feet. I’ve only read four because it takes me a while to recover from the shock of his voice through the pen. That said, I’m immensely proud he was such a kind, decent, funny man.
I had fantastic grandparents and friendly “uncles and aunts” at the local church in which the family was very active. I think listening to all those sermons gave me a taste for stories. When I grew up I rejected the notion that there is only one faith but have the deepest respect for the community that raised me. All stories from all religions feed into the great ocean of stories that shape our lives.
School was a massive comprehensive, the second biggest in the country. It was chaos but my friends and I muddled through, living for concerts at the Kings Hall and any kind of party. I was crazy about drama and walked to school learning poetry to save my bus fare to pay for lessons with Betty Isobel Meakin, who charged 40p an hour. She called us all “darling”, wore black eyeliner and was madly generous in her enthusiasm for Shakespeare and LAMDA exams.
I went with my dear friend Susan Bookbinder. I hated it. We all had to sit on a bench and one by one stand up and read a poem. I wanted to bolt but was too scared to make it to the door. My turn came and I was pushed off the bench. When I opened my mouth and started reading some kind of parachute unfurled. Susan and I would dance to songs in her attic room and give each other marks out of 10 for style and interpretation. We loved songs with stories. Then we’d stay up all night for sleepover,s drinking tea out of Biba cups – she had a kettle in her room!
I got glandular fever at 16 and so missed my O levels. I generally got very low marks for everything except theology and English. I was good at them. I decided just to memorise the poems and go into free flow in the exams. It worked and I never looked back.
I was accepted into Oxford by a lucky fluke. I didn’t understand the exam paper but had to do something for two hours so I wrote whatever came into my head about Browning’s Poem Serenade at the Villa – I still love it. I was amazed to get an interview. Colin Williamson, the tutor, asked me what my favourite poem was. I said Andrew Marvell’s The Coronet. He gasped: “But that’s my favourite poem!”
When the telegram came through over the phone to say I’d been accepted my mum answered it and she and my brother couldn’t stop laughing. I shouted at them to stop teasing me because I thought it was a bad joke. Mr Williamson said they would take a risk with me because although I had the sentence construction and spelling of a 12 year old, I seemed to have flair. I’m so grateful to him. He had multiple sclerosis and taught from a wheelchair and gave me one on one grammar lessons every week out of the goodness of his heart.
I co-founded the Big Wheel Theatre Company after university and we had a year doing a play every couple of weeks or so funded by the Manpower Services Commission. We rehearsed in a freezing cold garage and had lots of laughs. When the money ran out we did Shakespeare workshops around Europe, sleeping anywhere – garages, convents, cadged sofas.
Then it was the Guildhall School of Music and Drama funded by the brilliant Inner London Education Authority before it disbanded. To be honest I got a bit up myself in drama school and lost touch with the game of life. But we had great teachers whose stuff I still use – it re-shapes, re-forms and grows with you.
I couldn’t play the waiting game required to be an actress so went into primary school teaching and slammed the door on drama in a petulant sulk. I was rewarded by being so cataclysmically hopeless at keeping discipline I had a panic attack every morning and was on Prozac by Christmas of my first year.
Within 20 minutes of Ben Haggarty, the storyteller, walking into my classroom my life changed. He told a story called the Red King and I went over like a nine-pin. I thought: “I can do that.” I started telling stories to the kids and it worked like a magic spell. The children listened, flat out and gawping for up to 45 minutes.
I have been so grateful to the enchantment of storytelling that I have been utterly constant to the form ever since. I do believe you need to constantly reinvent and make art personal, so I do it in my own way – often with wigs, weird props and participation. After working with children for 10 years I then worked on adult shows about goddesses for another 10. In the midst of all that, Shahnameh – The Persian Epic of the Kings – has grown. It was initially a gift from the British Museum who commissioned it. Working on rhyming storytelling reminds me of memorising poetry walking across the park to school.
Storytelling is the best job in the world. I remember a teacher at Guildhall, Ken Rea, saying to me once: “Nothing is ever wasted.” His word has proved to be gold.
The Shahnameh – the Epic Book of Kings visits Settle Stories, Fri 11 November, 7.30-9pm. For full info and booking click here. Visit the Adverse Camber website for additional tour dates, including Liverpool and Oldham