They say that good things come in small packages, and W11 Opera’s current production of Eliza and the Swans, a sparkling retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, is certainly a glorious thing on the small stage of the POSK Theatre in Hammersmith, which for two nights transforms into the great world of fairy tales and very real enchantment.
W11 Opera is a small powerful wonder celebrating 44 years of uniquely inspired and highly original musical theatre for young people, and especially a tradition of genuine inclusiveness and true communal enterprise that has involved over 2,000 children from more than 100 schools in its productions. Although not the only British company commissioning and staging original plays for young performers, it is certainly the oldest, and one of the most determinedly dynamic with a growing legacy of 35 repertoire works.
A gripping narrative about growing up while holding onto the enchantment of childhood.”
It is quite possible that Eliza and the Swans may be W11’s finest production to date, and this is a hard comparison to make given the mesmerising quality of every show in the past seven or more years. Yet the collaboration between librettist Hazel Gould and composer John Barber has brought forth a version of Andersen’s story of sadness, wonder, empowerment and hope that has its own unique power and enduring thrill. Gould retells the story from the point of view of Princess Eliza, creating a gripping narrative about growing up while holding onto the enchantment of childhood, about right and wrong and the ineluctable force of silence against spells and all words of poison, about falling in love and finding love, about being female, strong and gentle all at once. Barber’s music is crisp, melodious, transporting, a combination of primordial contrapuntal rhythms and a very resonant contemporary sound. One of the unsurpassed charms of W11 Opera are the voices of the performers, crystalline and almost otherworldly in this production, and of a quality that belies what one would expect from a company that is each year renewed as a group, as a professional and amateur body.
Neil Irish’s set is like the most beautiful woodcut illustration from a mythical children’s book, and it truly feels as though one were opening the covers of Hans Christian Andersen’s own portfolio of papercuts and falling through their intricate shapes and forms right inside the story of Eliza and her eleven brothers. Anett Black’s exuberantly imaginative costumes underscore this sense of tangible craftsmanship, which the young performers visibly relish, as it endows them with the power to be all they are not and all they can be, under the direction of Ben Occhipinti and Maggie Rawlinson.
There is a riveting archbishop (Callista Manning) who oozes devious gravitas, a young Prince (Sachin Oberoi) full of boyish embarrassment but also purity and clout, ravenous wolves and mischievously innocent palace children, valiant hunters and indomitable guards, palace maidens and obsequious servants full of the prejudiced convictions of mobs and the doubts of individual conscience, just like an ancient chorus. There are wedding guests with terrifyingly delicious names such as the Viscountess Black of the East or the Earl of Barnsbury-Beast, an Old Woman and an Old Man (Molly Banes and Catherine Suleiman) whose ragged wisdom will counter the malicious attractions of a beautiful evil Queen (Georgie Redhead); there is the shadow of a mighty King (Cameron Roker), and, of course, there is Eliza (Isabelle Lewitt), who manages to capture the freshness, awkwardness and magical grace of girlhood with fine fragility.
Wood and Barber have managed to capture every delicate shade of Andersen’s story and to invest it with all the power of its universal themes. They have also infused it with a specific sensitivity and resonance which add to the story themes of displacement and forced exile, of lands and nations lying fallow because of human cruelty, weakness and blind stupidity. On their stage are reflected with uncanny poignancy every headline about refugees and strangers, collapsing economies and our society’s precarious balance between the We and the Other –social, national, racial.
The programme itself is another small wonder. Illustrated throughout by the child actors, it includes an essay on the Royal status of swans and their pride of place on the banqueting tables of Kings and Queens, the Royal custom of Swan Upping and the current Queen’s conservationist rather than culinary interest in these creatures of beauty and reverie. There is an engrossing piece on humanimals, human/animal transformations in literature and lore, and a recipe for nettle pesto and nettle soup. There is also a seriously spellbinding account of the artistic journey undertaken by Barber and Wood as they brought this production to life.
It would be easy to imagine an enormous mechanism behind a production such as this, which brings together outstanding professionals and everyday children and results in an unmissable experience. Yet W11 Opera was created by a few dreamy and visionary individuals and still exists as a voluntary endeavour. For Laura Banes, chair of W11, this is a project intent on creating magic out of chaos. It has the highest artistic aspirations and the deepest commitment to the pleasure and delight involved in performing and in the sharing of friendships and passions. It is also a solid initiative to integrate communities through art, to emphasise the transformative power of art in young people’s lives.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
Papercuts by Hans Christian Andersen c/o Odense City Museums