“The Viy: Gogol’s Vampire”
We had an amazing night storytelling with music at Leighton House in Kensington on Thursday November 2nd 2023. Onstage were myself, my sister Katherine, drummer Sam Kelly and George Hoyle (who goes by the artist name, ‘Cunning Folk’. )
Lets go back to Autumn 2018. George was researching a folklore talk on vampires. He showed me Nicolai Gogol’s short story “The Viy”, saying that he thought it would make a great story for me to tell. I agreed! I spent around two months re-shaping and changing the story. I did one of my first rehearsals to ace storyteller Laura Sampson who gave me some excellent structural and thematic tips!
I first performed it without music in ’19. (George was with me, he played a song to start, one in the middle and one to finish.) It was a big success. After experimenting with two other fully-scored pieces, George and I decided to re-adapt the Viy for a full score in November ’22.
At the same time, Leighton House agreed to programme it for November ’23.
In January ’23 George and I sat together, he with his guitar, to go through the different scenes and moods of the story, trying out different sounds to create a palette. George then composed an hour of original music and songs, this took around three months. (He is very modest but he is a highly accomplished songwriter with an impressive pedigree!) During the summer we spent a few weeks trying words and music out until they melted together… but that was just the start…. (pic below: Nic Laborie)
I wanted to work on my physicality and expressions of character for the story and to this end I was lucky enough to have generous help from ace performer and theatre-maker Minnie Wilkinson. While I was honing the words and delivery, George was arranging different parts for percussion, keys and voice. We are lucky enough to work with a musical team who we know, value and trust. (Unfortunately Oliver Parfitt was not able to be with us at Leighton House so Katherine stepped in and saved the day by playing keyboards.) Each musical part was checked with me to make sure it added to the mood and meaning. As we got closer to the day, George directed every aspect of the interaction between him and the band including seemingly minor things like the type of amplification, whether we should be sitting or standing and how to maximise sightlines so he can conduct them on the day.
All of us had other projects happening too! For logistical reasons we were never able to have a rehearsal with all four of us together so he rehearsed one musician at a time over the course of several months, sending recordings out and building the whole piece together in his head. With six weeks to go things got more intense…
George and I had increasingly- frequent full run throughs with guitar and story. We knew the space and although we were practising in a tiny living room, we imagined the different parts of the concert room at Leighton House so that when the big day came, we would be able to ‘inhabit’ it fully. With a few weeks to go we rehearsed daily which left us pretty exhausted! With a week to go we tapered rehearsals and focussed on rest, a bit like an athlete before a big race!
The day before the show, George assembled and checked every piece of PA, every cable, every instrument including spare strings, stands, baffles, extra batteries and emergency replacement instruments. There were around 30 separate peices of kit! On the day he supervised the pack and managed to load every item into the delicate heritage space, set everything up and do a full sound check all in the 55 minutes between museum closing time and doors opening. Pretty impressive!
During the gig, he played and sung as well as conducting the band and engineering the sound so our levels were perfectly comfortable for everyone in the room. Throughout the performance, people were mostly looking at me. The music swelled, rattled, sank and rose underneath me, providing a magical bed of music to boost and cushion my words, creating emotion and impact.
As you can see, the process from the germ of an idea to the final product is long and complicated and a huge amount of work and talent goes into every part.
Would you like to watch a performance? You can join us in the romantically decaying (and rather spooky) Asylum Chapel Peckham on 28th Jan 2024. tickets here.
pic above: ‘Sadie Takes the Stage’