Review: WNYO - Paul Bunyan @ WMC
Welsh National Youth Opera finally gets a production for the Donald Gordon stage in the WMC. With Steven Fry on board and also Only Boys Aloud, our attention was certainly grabbed.
Composed by Benjamin Britten, who we simply can’t escape this year, it’s a sort of opera-musical-operetta (and also his first stage work). It’s a very American piece, written during his time in the States, fleeing from the Second World War due to his pacifist views (and good on him as well). We have the blues, folk, hymns along with other twee delights. The words for the work are by W. H. Auden, a mighty 20th century poet. He is perhaps most famous for the usage of his Stop All The Clocks heard in Four Weddings And A Funeral. His writing for the title character (a spoken role) is very mysterious and thought provoking.
Britten and Auden certainly absorbed the culture of the US, even if there were concerns on the brutal and spiralling nature of capitalism. These concerns are still seen today and this is where this production comes inâ€¦
As we arrived inside, a boy sat on a bed covered in American flag sheets gazed upon the giant TV, which framed the stage as adverts went past for yoga, insurance and other nonsensical purchases. This production had immersed itself in 1950s Americana with a few modern nods of today here and there. I had wondered how this would be staged. After all, how do you stage something that has a lead character who is a giant? Fry was the voice of Bunyan. His American accent was pretty decent and charming. The top half of his face graced a huge screen at the back of the stage (we could just about tell he had a lumberjack hat on), whilst the front one had footage of his mouth reading the words. Fry’s recorded voice, as expected, was one of the best things about the piece. Shame he couldn’t be there and take a bow at the end with the rest of the cast.
The story taken from folklore is not very engrossing, even for an operetta hybrid. The giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan along with Babe, his giant blue ox (who is sadly never seen in the show, perhaps that’s just taking it too far?) starts up an immensely successful logging business. He hires workers from all over Europe as his work force and things seem hunky-dory. Bookkeeper Johnny Inkslinger comes across the camp and refuses to work for Bunyan, since he would rather keep his independence. Through hunger, he soon gives in and signs up to work for ‘Mr Bunyan’, as he likes to call him. The camp soon finds themselves struggling to keep themselves organised and efficient. This gradually amounts to their downfall resulting in their leaving and going their own ways. But were things really that bad working for Bunyan? Did working for someone else make them lose their identity? Does the American dream really work?
I’d personally rather work for Bunyan than half the bosses of today. He’s tough, yet willing to keep your own expression and freedom, of sorts.
I didn’t feel I could take this work very seriously, even by the operetta standards of which I have spoken. There wasn’t a great deal to persuade you to go back into the second part (the other half was better though). The cast were great and good-humoured. But there were certainly no belly laughs from his audience. I did wonder if the humour of the production or of the work itself determined how an audience would take it. There should have been more laughter, but sadly there wasn’t. All those who took part put buckets of effort into this. Perhaps it’s the peculiar nature of the work itself. But there is some relevance since Britten had written it with American students in mind. His love of community projects would see him write loads more for children and young people, such as his famous Noye’s Fludde (simply pronounced Noah’s Flood).
My plus one was German and had only been in Cardiff for a matter of days (we met via Couch Surfing). She gladly joined me. She found it hard at times to take in what was going on. I was with her on this for some moments. I did cringe at the thought of what the German Lumberjacks would say in the Lumberjack Chorus, which is one of the best moments of the work. This is when Only Boys Aloud graced the stage and were only seen a few more times later. The testosterone levels for this chorus were immense as the stage was crammed with all the male singers in their macho gear.
Other parts of the music are a mixed bag. The Telegram Song is annoyingly catchy and the Narrator’s music perhaps a little bit hackneyed. Here the Narrator’s songs are shared between half a dozen of the cast to beef it up, I suppose. What I really didn’t take to was the chavy and crass portrayal of the Three Geese, who announce the arrival of Bunyan. Inkslingers’ Lament is a song for anyone who has wanted more out of life and yet hasn’t really achieved it. We all dream grandly but at the end of the day, we have to eat to live as well. The dog Fido and cats Moppet and Poppet, have the singers in ridiculous fancy dress animal costumes. Perhaps more like Cats would have helped? The cats got to take off their heads for the party and this looked miles better, like an exhausted mascot after a long day at the shopping mall.
The wonderful juxtaposition of Tiny and Hot-Biscuit Slim’s love duet is shared with the awkward yet blood splattered video work by Adam Young. This is of Bunyan and Swedish logger Hel Helson fighting over who should be in charge. Through all this Paul states that is was vital to beat him and that he did so out of friendship.
The end of the works is a head-scratcher. As the ensemble are dressed in Paul Bunyan grey cover all, marching and swaying in unison they leave with the powerful line "Save animals and men". At the very end, Inkslinger raises a gun to his head, with the audience expecting a massive bang. We don’t get it but rather the young boy who in bed wakes up, jerked upright like after a very powerful dream. The American Dream was over or perhaps was it a nightmare? Clever way of ending the piece, even if some audience members were unsure when to applaud at the end as the kid gazed out from his bed and the lights dimmed.
Now that the young singers have had a taste of the main stage, here’s hoping they stay there for future productions.