On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.
I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.
He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)
After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.
Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.
Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.
The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.