Friday 26 July 2013

Woodwose – a community introspection

Andrew Kennedy, Credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Kennedy
Credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Woodwose was the culmination of a yearlong collaborative effort from the Wigmore Hall Learning Programme involving a new opera written for tenor Andrew Kennedy, the Wigmore Hall’s own chamber group Ignite, Harrow Road Community Choir, St Marylebone School, Queen’s Park Primary School and Burdett-Coutts and Townshend Foundation C of E Primary School, performed on Friday 19 July 2013 at the Wigmore Hall.

Kerry Andrew
Kerry Andrew
Composer KerryAndrew was commissioned to write an opera for 150 people local to Westminster to honour the centenary of Benjamin Britten. By basing the opera in a folk tradition Kerry was able to join together the multiple ethnic heritages of the performers. During the initial stages of investigating what stories frightened the performers during their childhood Kerry developed a central character of ‘Woodwose’ a wild man of the forest. It is this mythical being that becomes the central focus for misguided village fears as Kerry explores the narrow mindedness and mass hysteria which lies behind hate crimes. In the tradition of Britten Kerry was also able to join together the musical folk heritage of lullabies and folk songs and weave them throughout the score.

Bearing in mind that this was largely an amateur performance there was a lot of good here. Working together the performers led the audience on a journey which veered close to the edge of anarchy and lawlessness before reaching a Hollywood feel-good ending. 

The opera began by introducing all the groups in turn starting with the smallest children as spirits of the wood – forest trees and animals, in homemade costumes, followed by scouts playing games, then the older children and main chorus in a 1940’s inspired set complete with WI jam stall. 

Andrew Kennedy was perfect as the main protagonist - I saw him earlier in the year in Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican. Here he really shone - his interpretation of Woodwose was outstanding. A slightly deranged forest man, wanting to be left alone and minding his own business, Woodwose is harried by a girl from the village who won’t leave him alone. Sometime later the villagers realise that the girl is missing, jump to conclusions, and assume that Woodwose has done something horrible to her. Even when the girl reappears the villagers decide to punish him.

Andrew’s tortured Woodwose character builds up to an emotional climax as he sings his life history: how he went to war, how he was changed by the violence and death around him. This performance was truly moving and I cannot praise it enough. Finally, via the power of a folk song – ‘Early one morning’ - the villagers recognise Woodwose and bring him home.

The 1940’s setting brings obvious comparisons, but this could be applied to any war, or indeed to societies often misunderstanding of mental illness. Quite rightly for the fairytale nature of this opera, Woodwose finds family and closure.

Kerry Andrew’s liberetto was simple, but powerful, and the score was sympathetically written. For the most part the singers were in unison, making the most of the combined sound of untrained voices, moving into duets or trios. Solos (apart from Andrew and Amber Kerr who played Betty) were shared out, with people drifting to prominence and then back into the chorus.

Ignite were supportive of the singers without being obtrusive. They provided an emotional underlay which drove along the surface content. There were some instrumental sections that were a little too avant garde to fit in with the general scheme, but after a while they became less noticeable.

Isabelle Adams deserves high praise for keeping the show running. Her directions were clear and enthusiastic. Any eye on her could not be lost. The relationship she had with the chorus and children represented a lot of hard work, talent and understanding.

The staging made the most of every inch of the hall – the stage, the isles, the balcony, even the ceiling (we had paper snow falling and spring flowering). The costumes and scenery may have been homemade with sticky tape showing, but this fitted with the make do and mend ethos of the 1940’s and the community spirit of the spectacle.

Kerry’s blog describes some of the comments she received after the performance.

Woodwose was directed by Hazel Gould and designed by Ruth Paton. It was supported by the City Bridge Trust, Mayfield Valley Arts Trust, The Monument Trust and the Samuel Sebba Charitable Trust.
review by Hilary Glover

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