The Devil’s Violin – a review by Professor Mike Wilson, Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries,
University of Glamorgan
The Devil’s Violin is a new touring show performed by Daniel Morden and a group of musicians consisting of Oliver Wilson-Dickson (violin), Eddy Jay (accordion) and Sarah Moody (cello). Having seen the show at Theatr Y Bont, Pontypridd on 27 September, it is my opinion that this show represents a significant step forward in the development of storytelling as a performance art.
Over the past ten years or so, storytelling has begun to develop its range both in terms of applied practice and performance forms. This has led to the emergence of an increasing number of shows, constructed around specific themes or collections of stories and that have been increasingly formal or theatrical in their approach and often involved a number of different storytellers. This has been a development from the model of the storytelling ‘concert’ that was prevalent in the eighties and early nineties where storytellers would generally work in an individual capacity from a flexible repertoire. Daniel Morden has been a key player in these developments of storytelling for adult audiences. It could, however, be argued that this highly performative (and, indeed, rehearsed) approach to storytelling runs counter to the more democratic (and, therefore, informal) nature of storytelling itself. My own view is that different occasions demand different kinds of storytelling and the highly performative approach has been a legitimate, and largely successful attempt to allow storytelling to reside in the more formal venues of theatres and arts centres. The danger is that in the formalisation of the storytelling experience, some storytellers will aspire to entering the ritualised and shamanistic realm of storytelling, adopting the role of ‘storyteller-aspriest’ and yet fall short of it. What makes The Devil’s Violin such an extraordinary piece of work is that it pulls back from such a position. As a piece of storytelling, this is probably the most formal, stylised and scripted work I have seen from Daniel Morden and that is, in part, out of necessity from working with a group of musicians. The concert format is abandoned in favour of a more coherent show which place the individual stories and items of music into a frame that holds everything together into a single experience and that is one element that makes this a significant development in storytelling. But it is Morden’s control over his performance and his playfulness with the form that is most impressive.
After the show a colleague remarked to me that it was very useful for students to see such an effective, yet simple performance. What she was referring to was the effectiveness of a performance that was uncluttered by set, props, costume, technology and, even, characterisation. It was simply a group of performers telling a story with words and music. Nevertheless, I would contend that that it is a simplicity that masks a much greater complexity and an effortlessness that conceals a sophisticated level of virtuosity and artistry amongst all the performers. Morden’s skill is that he formalises the performance right up to the point of entering the realm of ritual and the shamanistic. He takes us right up to the wire and then, with a light gesture or glance at the audience, he draws back from the edge, reminding us that we are simply watching a storyteller telling us a story. It shocks us out of our enchantment , rather than allowing us to wallow in it and, in so doing, forces us to take a fresh, critical look at the story. In Brechtian terms, this is a perfect piece of Verfremdung and it what makes watching The Devil’s Violin a truly epic experience.