“That One Branch Of Mankind Should Rule Over Another”

A review of Hugh Lupton and Nick Hennessey at Lancaster Litfest.

By Vicky Ellis

When I review live performances l tend to use adjectives like lively, moving or stirring. Occasionally a routine deserves a more impressive descriptor – superlative or sensational. Only once before have I used the word important to describe a live work of art. The Liberty Tree is, without a doubt, an important performance. Hugh Lupton and Nick Hennessey have brought this feat of storytelling to fruition at the perfect time. Not since the economic turmoil of the 1980s has the spirit of the 99% been this disheartened. If ever we needed to be reminded of the history of English radicalism it is now.

On Friday 21st October, The Storey Theatre was packed to its seams for the pair’s Litfest rendition of The Liberty Tree. Such is the drawing power of this duo that the organisers seemed to be slightly surprised by the crowds present on the night. Extra chairs were found and squeezed in alongside the planned rows. All was soon silent once the performance was underway, however. Once the pair was in their stride, you could have heard a bubble pop.

Lupton and Hennessey treated us to a selection of form: ballad – spoken and sung, chanting, traditional music on recorder and bodhran, and, of course, outstanding storytelling. Hennessey boasts a beautiful baritone which was felt as much as heard and Lupton’s mastery of the recorder would not have been out of place at one of the better folk festivals. For each radical who met an untimely end, the pair beat a solemn rhythm on the bodhran and sang a short verse in memoriam.

The narrative was strong throughout, moving between folklore tales of Robin Hood and historical heroes such as Gerrard Winstanley of the Diggers movement and intellectual revolutionary Thomas Paine Both historical and folklore tale was treated with the same attention to detail so that the characters seemed to sit amongst us. Metaphor was not intrusive but flowed naturally. The description of venison cooking over a camp fire with smoke ‘thickened in the sunlight’ was particularly effective. Repetition of phrase and refrain: ‘Sherwood, the sheer wood, the green wood, the light wood’, ‘The Merry Month of May’ wove the separate tales into a continuous verdant landscape.

Make no mistake; Lupton and Hennessey are masters in their (Common land) field. The pair handled the material with deftness and care; their manner was relaxed and approachable. Humour was delivered with warmth and tragedy with a genuine tinge of sorrow. The stories spoke of death and renewal, of the continuity of humanity, of the land and our relationship with it. At times overwhelmingly sad, the overall message was one of hope. The plenary roll call which tied in historical radicalism to more recent examples, right up to the Arab Spring, was an effective summary which drove home the topicality of the theme.

Art and performance are often among the first victims in a period of austerity and also under Authoritarianism. In the first instance it is argued that they are less important than more basic needs. In the second they pose a challenge to Totalitarianism (think Stalinist Russia) and suffer the indignity of censorship. Artists become outlaws. The Liberty Tree is a reminder of the power of performance to inspire and unite. Lupton and Hennessey are as galvanizing as the noble outlaw himself. If you get the chance to see it for yourself, take it. It’s important.

Vicky Ellis is running a workshop for the Blackpool Wordpool Festival on Wednesday 9th November, 2 pm – 4 pm. You can find out more about her guide to writing a novel in 30 days on Facebook. Another of Vicky’s Litfest reviews can be found here.


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