Storytelling taps into something magical from our childhood, a liberty in transporting ourselves to another world with characters and creatures that become as alive in your head as your friend in the playground. Of course any story, any performance is a form of storytelling, but there’s something so unpretentious and freeing about stories for children. When creating performances aimed at a younger audience, you not only have to possess excellent narrative skills and clarity, you also have to bring out the big visual brain to somehow create a world that supports the story and captivates children. It’s no news that they’re one of the most critical audiences.
Acknowledging little ones’ joy for music, puppetry and action, The Wrong Crowd has teamed up with Opera North to bring Swanhunter, an opera by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton, to life. Based on a Finnish folk story it celebrates the power of song, music and dark magic in the icy North. Making opera accessible for the little ones, it takes us through a strange adventure as the young Lemminkäinen (Adrian Dwyer) travels to the North in search for a bride, against his mother’s wishes. But the North holds all sorts of dangers, and he must face impossible tasks to impress Louhi (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones), the mother of the North.
The Wrong Crowd is an exciting company who celebrates the imagination, working with puppetry and design to transport the audience into the world of the North. The storytellers are campers who tell the tale around the campfire, and suddenly it evolves before their eyes. Their objects become props for Lemminkäinen’s journey: tents become mountaintops, bags barking dogs, and items of clothing body parts in Death’s River. Their use of objects and puppetry is fascinating, and Rachael Canning’s puppet designs are charming and effective in their simplicity and performance. Dove’s score is equally engaging and charismatic and gently supports the narrative without too many detours. The piece is an ensemble performance with everyone supporting the narrative – something essential when dealing with young audience members. It’s equally sweet and engaging for adults in its foreign strangeness as we embark on the dark creatures and trials of the North.
Adrian Dwyer’s Lemminkäinen enchants his encounters with his voice and engages us on his journey. The soundscape for the creatures he encounters are brilliantly created by the company, and Suzanne Shakespeare’s vocal as the Swan is just stunning. Swanhunter is a charming little piece with lots of action and visual life, though the ending is strangely abrupt. After all of Lemminkäinen’s troubles and encounters it seems odd to finish off the piece in such a jolt. That said, Hannah Mulder’s direction is clear and though it’s a short, simple journey, the visual life of Swanhunter takes us to the world of music where we celebrate the sung word and the wonders of storytelling. A sweet little introduction to opera.
Swanhunter is playing at Linbury Studio Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Richard Davenport.