It is often said that people look like their pets. I wonder if people can look like their poems? If the mythical seal-woman in Fay Roberts’ solo show The Selkie – A Song of Many Waters is an otherworldly shape-changer, then surely the show’s creator and performer is too. I say this because on Tuesday, as part of Cambridge Junction’s brand new festival Troopfest, Roberts proved that she is a performer who can wear many metaphorical hats (or should I say seal skins?). Nestled somewhere between Fringe Previews, leopard-print onesies, bubble wrap and pop-culture references was The Selkie, soft and unassuming, waiting quietly like a pool of cool water, ready to submerge audience members in the tale of an unnamed Selkie woman as she swims through songs and stories in search of for her stolen seal skin. Just like the Selkie changes her form, so too does Roberts as she magically shape-shifts between the roles of oral storyteller, ancient bard, slam poet, folk singer and shaman. The result? A haunting, mesmerising 60 minute vocal voyage that puts prosimetric performance back on the map.
If I had to pinpoint what made The Selkie stand out, it would be Roberts’ ability to not only transform but to transport. Like a 21st-century shaman, Roberts takes the audience on a journey, a supernatural sea voyage, as she dips in and out of stories, frequently introducing new characters and new worlds. During the performance I encountered the dashing yet devilish Lobster Man; I met Slavic folklore’s favourite walking-house-on-chicken legs Baba Yaga (don’t ask); I wandered to the edge of the universe, to cliff tops inhabited by a crazy Hill Cave woman, and to the bottom of an icy river to comb the thick tresses of an angry water-woman (to be fair, she’d had her fingers chopped off and been murdered by her father, so you can understand if she was feeling a little less than happy).
Roberts isn’t after a performance that sits neatly in the ‘genre’ box. She weaves and wends stories like a norn at the helm of a literary loom, bringing her larger than life characters into sharp focus before veering off down a meditative, self-reflective path of quiet contemplation and intense interiority. Her multiple stories and forms (she slips between free prose, ABAB rhyme schemes, high-pitched ethereal folk singing and story-within-a-story tropes with Tolkien-esque subtlety and skill) are all refracted through the eyes of the seal woman at the heart of the poetic narrative. Roberts’ performance is brilliant, captivating: half-rhymes and gentle isochronic rhythms trip off her tongue, unfolding and unfurling like a silk scarf dipped in honey. She is not afraid to punctuate her performance with moments of humour either, sometimes stepping out of the role of narrator and using comic grins, feigned confusion and off-beat remarks to momentarily ‘become’ her characters.
For all its magic, The Selkie didn’t skimp on the chance to explore important issues either. Laced with arsenic undertones of women losing their voice, their respect, power and status, the story-poem is not afraid to give voice to common feminist concerns through the prism of mythological narrative. But what makes The Selkie so satisfying is that overt socio-political statements do not dominate the piece. So much of spoken word and slam becomes artists employing poetry as a platform to broadcast their opinions on topical social issues. There is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes at a poetry gig you just crave escapism and adventure – not to be pummelled with politics. Roberts understands this. The Selkie takes very serious themes and coats them in layers of creativity, riding on waves of subtle undercurrent. Roberts is not a performer interested in fast-food fame or clickbait praise: her work is organic, timeless and inspired by ancient tradition steeped in an appreciation for the evocative and transformative power of words. In terms of attention, The Selkie does not demand – it gives. Like the sea, it takes the audience on a voyage, allows them to escape reality for an hour, and reminds them that even in these trying, tumultuous political times, it is still possible to find beauty and solace in your own skin…even if it is made out of seal.
Words by Anna Millward
Missed Fay Roberts at Troopfest? Catch her during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Silk Nightclub, 21-27 August from 18:20-19:20 or visit the website for more info.