Review: Once Upon a Time There Was a War – SISF 2023

Once Upon a Time There Was a War - Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2023 - Review at

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of the last events of this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, Once Upon a Time There was a War, brought a touch of magical realism to the topic of conflict. Indeed trying to approach ‘war’ directly is usually a losing proposition, the all-encompasing awfulness of the subject defying definition. So in taking a slightly oblique approach, combining the potent talents of Danish storyteller Svend-Erik Engh, award-winning trad musician Mairi Campbell, and Danish live-illustrator Tea Bendix, the show chooses wisely.

The selected, true-tales, gathered through a decade of research, are firmly rooted in individual experience. Not the remote world of generals and politicians, but of those plunged into the trenches. These histories, plucked from Danish history, and not British, also stripped the mostly Scottish audience of much of their usual frame of reference. What remains is the tragedy of young lives cut short for no good reason, be it the wanton evil of commanders, or the merciless guns of the opposition. Engh is immensely personable, his easy manner making present hurt of wounds decades or centuries’ old.

Interwoven with the spokenword, Campbell gave musical voice to these tales of love, trauma, and waste. Her Celtic lexicon, with a merry detour into The Ink Spots Java Jive, marries perfectly with the storyteller’s. Her own compositions are poignant and thoughtful, whilst The Road to the Isles captures every soldiers’ wish to travel the road home, and not disaster.

Reacting to both these vocal artists, Bendix and her brushes, created another, visual dimension to Once Upon a Time There Was a War. Not only does this expand the show’s accessibility and impact, but the artist’s meditative, responsive movement also introduces a note of theatre. Sometimes her imagery is prophetic of moments’ to come, other times a memory of episodes past, her clear screen gradually evolving into a complex tapestry of meaning.

Just as with the Java Jive, not every tale ended in disaster. War is hell, but sometimes the solider survives; sometimes wisdom prevails over vainglorious stupidity. Just as we mourn with the young woman burying her Danish captain, capriciously executed by his own commander, we root for the shoemaker transmuting a monstrous command into the Krone needed to buy a wedding ring.

A well judged, well balanced show, Once Upon a Time There Was a War, made a lively, poignant and nuanced meditation.

‘Once Upon a Time There Was a War’ was part of the 2023 Scottish Storytelling Festival, which runs between 13-29 October. For information on upcoming events, and tickets, click here.