Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Swanhunter, Linbury Studio Theatre

The cast of this co-production (between the theatre company The Wrong Crowd and Opera North) were pre-set as we came into the theatre: four friends in Borgen-chic jumpers and hats sitting outside tents. Both before and after the lights went down, we watched them entertaining one another with play acting. One recalls the sequence at the beginning of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient where the cartographers entertain one another around the fire in the desert. Songs and stories - you can see how this show had already got off on the right foot with this blog.

So Swanhunter seamlessly (I'll return to this word) carried on, telling the story of Lemminkäinen who travels North in search of a wife. His mother doesn't much like the idea and the surprisingly grim latter parts of the show support her scepticism. Although this is, in many respects, a show aimed at children, it doesn't patronise them. The violence of life is stylised but the stage images are dredged from surprisingly dark recesses of the imagination, not unlike Guillermo del Toro's wonderfully designed film Pan's Labyrinth. The superb lighting of Richard Howell is a part of this, as is this simple but persistently effective mini-proscenium that sits over the centre of the stage, a silhouette of mountains in equivocal perspective.

With a six-hand band including an accordion and kit drum, Jonathan Dove's orchestration allows the cast to be heard without having to shout. Yet even with succinct, oft-repeated material (this is a virtue in my opinion) the cast was properly tested. Suzanne Shakespeare's eponymous Swan is a case in point, requiring proper oxygen-thin tessitura singing, which was strung out in silver like the aqueous lighting. Adrian Dwyer's paints Lemminkäinen as a rather green hero and gets most of the laughs he plays for. All the rest of the cast bring this humour to the portence of their individual & ensemble roles, largely through considerable energy (impressive in itself - this run has including same-day matinees).

Added to all this is continuous puppeteering and a number of costume changes, often in the aforementioned tents. Most impressive of all for me though was the movement around the stage. Whether directly in character, conducting a puppet or simply moving in and out of shadows at the rear of the space, everyone maintained a purposeful tension in their movement. The lack of seams in the production keeps up the tempo and direction of the performance. Not least in this respect is the conductor, Justin Doyle, who keeps balance, pace and some tricky rhythmic passages in check throughout (there's no-where for anyone to hide in this show, on this stage and with this score). For all its abrupt, fable-like ending it's a coherent, absorbing opera, much enjoyed.

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