Mammon meets his match
Gair ar Gnawd, Word on Flesh, delivers an hour of intricately constructed music for instrument and voice that has the flavour and passion of a revivalist meeting combined with the immediacy of a West End musical.
Originally presented in North Wales in 2012 with a community choir drawn from the Caernarfon area, the work of composer Pwyll ap Siôn and librettist Menna Elfyn has been significantly developed for this mesmerising performance in Carmarthenshire.
Directed by Angharad Lee, the setting in Llanelli’s bright and modern Ffwrnes theatre which faces onto a space that juxtaposes modern eateries and cleaned-up old chapels but also a row of semi-derelict shops, was possibly unintentionally perfect for this story. Similarly, the shiny theatre in Tin Town neighbours that new pulpit of the Welsh language, the TV company Tinopolis.
Gair ar Gnawd tells of a tattoo artist called Awen, sung by a feisty Sian Meinir (pictured), and a Bible translator, Anwar, moving portrayed by Dyfed Wyn Evans, who work alongside each other in an empty chapel that has been targeted by developers and a councillor for conversion into a casino.
Gentle but passionate Anwar is not a ranting Bible basher. Rather he quietly, calmly follows in the path of William Morgan spreading the Word through translation, although at times he does have to hold the Book up as a protecting talisman to his tattooing temptress. Awen in Welsh, the main language of the opera, translates as Muse but maybe she could have been called Eve.
Having grown from the 2012 performance, the work now includes a semi-chorus and using Becky Davies’ versatile designs, they were the glue that melded the production although possibly visually reducing the contribution of the community choir.
There was some gloriously rich singing from the developers/builders played by a semi-chorus of eight men and women: Jessica Robinson, Meilir Jones, Emyr Wyn Jones from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; Robert Lewis and Rhodri Prys Jones from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Joanna Harries from the Royal Northern College of Music and Drama, Aimée Daniel from the Birmingham Conservatoire and Alys Mereid Roberts from the Royal Academy of Music. In quiet, dark moments the bass-baritone of Emyr Wyn Jones was particularly intoxicating.
Our apparently contrasting but, of course, not so different, central characters, have never met before until a seismic shift in their circumstances, literally, as the developers start banging around, force them together physically and metaphorically as they sort of battle against the redevelopment.
In actuality it is their own discussions, clashes and eventual, slightly pie in the sky compromise, seeing the equal value of the Word made Flesh and the use of the Flesh for personal messages, identity and value statement through skin tattoos. Along the way we have the exploration of faith, identity and community through the magnificent community choir which evokes not only the tradition of Welsh choir and chapel but incorporates Maltese and Hindi languages.
Thus a tale of revelation, understanding, tolerance and shared humanity emerges while in the background for reasons that aren’t particularly clear the redevelopment also falters when the local community reject the lure of Mammon. Abba-like they might sing Money, Money, Money at one stage and coins pour from every available container, but eventually these money-fuelled robots (one actually moves as a machine stuck in a repetitive movement of walking into a ladder), give up. I’m not sure if they see the light which is the other main theme of the show which starts with the community choir lighting one another’s light bulbs and ends with a little girl shining a torch onto the builders who are now frozen statues – did someone mention Lot?
I did say it smacked of a revivalist meeting with a hefty moral didactic. Even those more cynical amongst the flock cannot fail to be swept along with the well-paced performance with apparently 20 individual songs of pop song (of musical theatre) length. Jenny Pearson conducted the ensemble of WNO Orchestra strings members; Sarah Thornett, Marilyn Shewring, Louise Brodrick, Simon Davison Mikeal Price and Annette Bryn Parri and Llŷr Simon (piano), Sioned Webb (keyboard), Dewi Ellis Jones (percussion) and David Miller (saxophone) with a musical range that while consistently choral, melodious and flowing, brought in musical vocabularies including, at one stage, quite jazzy saxophone and funky maracas.
The full production and a 30 minute documentary about the project will be broadcast on S4C this coming week.
Gair ar Gnawd
Menna Elfyn and Pwyll ap Siôn
Welsh National Opera
Ffwrnes theatre, Llanelli