A Literary Bestiary: a story of the night

One Tuesday evening in early June, dusk was deepening around the library, the readers had gone home, the building was closed to the public, and it was all set to drift off to sleep for the night as usual – when it was reawakened and reanimated by a strange and fantastical event: Ark took it over and instigated a new immersive short story show that filled its space with wild, beautiful and bestial literary experiments.

The library was Swiss Cottage Library, and the show was A Literary Bestiary. An enthusiastic and receptive audience turned up to join Ark for a journey of stories around this fabulous modernist library space. The library building is designed from the outside to look like the unfurling leaves of a book, and it opens up into a wonderfully light and airy space inside that is inherently performative. The stories told during the show – several brand new commissions and a sprinkling of contemporary and classic tales - all engaged with the idea of bestiary, involving curious creatures real and imagined, human relationships with animals, and notions of the bestial, the feral and the wilderness. All the readings involved experimental performance concepts and creative cross-arts collaborations. And every short story or set of stories took place at a different staging post around the library, as the audience was led along a circular route that traversed three floors and included performances from spiral staircases, balconies and alcoves.

The audience was first welcomed under an audio canopy of bird song in a forest, and those who arrived early enough were invited to make bookish regalia with artist Chloe Spicer in the lobby.

As the show started, the audience was invited upstairs to the atrium, and assembled next to a giant spinning carousel for a short introduction to theme of the night and the concept of immersive short story shows by Ark founder Ellen Wiles. The carousel formed part of an art installation by Dmitri Galitzine, aptly exploring the history of radical theatre and storytelling in Camden.

The opening short story of the night was Cockroaches in Autumn, written by a master of the form, Lydia Davis (for whose permission we are very grateful), and performed with fantastic zeal by actress Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), accompanied by a creepy projected film of the filth-loving beasts on the move. Davis’s vivid story challenges the usual loathing expressed in relation to these insects: ‘We feel respect for such nimble rascals, such quick movers, such clever thieves... They sleep behind a child’s drawings on the kitchen wall. I tap each piece of paper and they burse out from the edges of pictures that are already filled with shooting starts, missiles, machine guns, land mines...’

The audience was then invited to move into the library’s adjacent art gallery room for Ox House/Spirit of Oxen: a stunning experimental short story and alphabet sound poem based on the Phoenician origins of Aleph and Bēt, or ox and home, written and performed by poet and sound artist Holly Pester. This story draws out the idea that the alphabet is a container of wild animals, by allegorising the alphabet itself as a bestiary. A mesmerizing effect was created by Holly’s use of strange animal sounds punctuating beautifully crafted sentences, all organized alphabetically in the Oulipo style: ‘Aleph’s bunker covers deer, even frilled-lizards going haraaarphaarrap, inside-out jellyfish; kookoo-kookoo; lima monkey nodding off; purring, quaking, rustling, hisses, tootoootoot, umbrella-bird; vampire bat, warbling, xantusia reptile, buzzzzzing’. The intense atmosphere was heightened by the disembodied costumes and images from Dmitri Galitzine’s installation that surrounded Holly as she read.

Dressed in an old-school night shirt with a bandaged leg, movement artist Rob Hesp then led the audience on in a feral dance along the atrium and the corridor and into the science area. They all gathered around the circular space to watch him contorting and bounding and subverting all normal modes of movement and behavior in the library, to the sinister music of Einsturzende Neubauten’s The Garden, in a piece inspired by ideas of wilderness, feral nature and the character of Mowgli.

In a seated area at the back of the library, the audience settled down to a vista of the two spiral staircases in the science area, while the brilliant novelist Joe Dunthorne (Submarine) took to the ‘stage’ at the information desk, and performed another new commission: Witness, a darkly comic and impeccably-written story involving a dive bar, a sheep dog, and how good it feels to witness serious crime, which had the audience in stitches. It was read with languorously good comic timing, to a jittery sound track composed by Kate Denholm, incorporating Stormy Blues by Arne Husby and other sounds that resonated with moments in the story.

The audience remained in place to watch a veteran of the short story form, the versatile Nicholas Royle (First Novel), read his newly commissioned story, The Larder, from one of the spiral staircases. This story explores the dark side of the Observer’s book of birds which is a constant presence on the coffee table of the narrator’s new girlfriend, and leads him to discover a peculiar form of ornithological brutality. The bird theme of this story led to a collaboration with flute music played live from the opposite staircase; at natural breaks in the story, Ellen Wiles interjected with extracts from Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir, a piece which captures the spirit of blackbird song.

The interval took place in the glass-walled café space at the centre of the top floor of the library building, where members of the audience drank wine, ate snacks and shared stories to a bestiary-themed soundtrack, including Joni Mitchell’s Coyote, David Bowie’s Cat People, Blue-Eyed Hawk’s Spiderton and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Fishin’ in the Dark.

After the interval, Ellen Wiles performed Maud’s Bestiary: one wise old parrot’s advice on life, a playful story about a medievalesque bestiary for the modern age and the authorial dancing bear. In an experiment with integrating the live and recorded voice and a visual slideshow, a recorded author podcast by a fictional human and parrot double act interacted with a live reading of bestiary tales and images from medieval bestiaries. The story pokes at the notion of celebrity authorship and the expectations of a book tour, and includes a new set of satirical bestiary tales that mirror the forms of the medieval tradition.

The audience then took centre stage for A Beastly Feast: an interactive story, led by artist Chloe Spicer co-devised with Ellen Wiles. Chloe showed the audience how to create their own edible books, using apple and vanilla flavoured rice paper, apple shoelaces and edible ink. Everyone was asked to get into pairs to make a book and co-write a one-sentence story. They all gathered around the crescent shaped balcony, looking down over the red-carpeted arts section, for a collective telling of their stories and a ritual devouring, involving each pair ripping the shared book in half and munching in unison. The result was a brilliant rainbow of literary responses, ranging from deaf zebras to cross crocodiles, and it was heartening to see everybody get into the storytelling spirit and collectively create something entirely new, collaborative, improvisatory and joyous.

After that, while people were still munching their literary creations, dancer Rob Hesp circled around the audience and led them down the spiral staircases, into the main arts section, and they assembled around him, some standing and some seated on sofas and chairs, as he moved with wild grace to the dark and eerie beats of Murcof‘s Ulysses, and ended in a provocative pose at the lap of a thrilled member of the audience.

Actors Grace Chilton and Maeve Leahy then took to the staircases, with Joe Dunthorne reappearing at the top balcony to form a triangle of readers, with a projector screen in the centre of them. They each performed a classic animal tale by an author from a different culture and time: Grace read The Black Beast by Pu Songling (China, 17th Century) with glorious panache, Maeve gave a witty rendition of a sketch about an ox entering a courtroom by Kenko (Japan, 13th Century), and Joe read the short and acerbic fable, The Flea and the Man, by Aesop (Greece, 600 BC), while artist Ruvienne Doran displayed a series of newly commissioned illustrations for the trio of stories on the central screen using a old-school overhead projector.

Maeve then descended to join guitarist María José Andrade to sing a folk song about beasts of burden, The Ploughman’s Dream. She entranced everybody around her with her golden voice, adding a new texture and a reflective mood to the closing stages of the show.

For the finale the audience returned to the art gallery, and gathered around Joe Dunthorne to hear him read his marvellous new prose-poem, Owl-In-Law, which is about a father who is worried his daughter has fallen in love with an owl as he lulls her to sleep. It was performed with a projected film backdrop of an owl, sitting, swivelling his head, and blinking great, glinting yellow eyes under tufting brows, as the camera zoomed in and in until it reached the black holes of its pupils and the story closed: ‘His wings are silent as he descends, claws trimmed and tagged with a commitment ring. She barely stirs as he grips her clavicles, lifts her gently between rafters. They hide in darkness to which my sight cannot adjust. I listen for my daughter’s cries but hear only her deepening breath.’

And with that, we all bid each other goodnight, and the library was finally allowed to sleep.


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