24 March 2018
Venue: London Coliseum, English National Opera
The London Coliseum, located in St Martin’s Lane, next to Trafalgar Square, is one of the theatrical gems of the West End. Designed by Frank Matcham, its excessively decorated interiors, large boxes and multitiered seating, convey pretty much an Edwardian theatre experience. I have been many times and have seen a number of productions of the English National Opera ranging from Carmen to Gilbert & Sullivan. This production of Iolanthe follows an enjoyable encounter with The Pirates of Penzance last year. As a postcolonial I grew up with Gilbert & Sullivan, which remain a bedrock of amateur light operatic societies and provided some of the only theatre I was exposed to as an impressionable teenager growing up in remote New Zealand. Gilbert & Sullivan represent also a direct connection with my current research interest, the career of theatre impresario Maurice E. Bandmann, who toured English musical comedy, including G & S, throughout the East in the early part of the 20th century. Having spent most of my adult life in Germany I have suffered from severe G&S deprivation, because his work is totally unknown there except to a few light opera aficionados (who tend to treat their affection with the kind of discretion that was previously associated with bizarre sexual preferences). The affection for G&S in the English-speaking world marks one of those theatrical divides that separate them from us and appears unbridgeable. While watching this delightful production I was reminded of a report in a Shanghai newspaper in 1876 when a local Chinese observed a production of Trial by Jury at the Lyceum Theatre:
Westerners told me this was a story about a lawsuit over a broken marriage promise. At first, the male plaintiff appeared to make a speech… After a long time, four women appeared with the accused. They sang and talked, which again lasted a long time. The judge tore up the file, threw it to the ground, and talked and sang with the jury… While I could not understand the language, judging from the Westerners‘ applause, foot thumping, and laughter it must have been quite entertaining. (Quoted in Siyuan Liu, Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 34)
Entertaining indeed. Admittedly, even for non-English-speaking Western spectators, an encounter with Gilbert & Sullivan can be a highly exotic and bewildering experience. In Gilbert & Sullivan, everybody sings and dances almost all of the time; and what they sing about often sounds like nonsense because nonsense is the overriding principle.
Photo: Clive Barda
In the case of Iolanthe a group of fairies (one of whom has been interbreeding with humans) gets mixed up with some fairly thick peers of the House of Lords, whereby in the logic of this play a thick peer is actually a tautology. The intermingling of fairy worlds with the human realm is of course an old theme linking A Midsummer night’s dream with Harry Potter. The conceit here is that the absurdities of the fairy world meet their match in the absurdities of the English political system whereby inherited title immediately guarantees legal and political authority – in other words, they are a good match. One could ask of course what is the relevance of late 19th century political satire in the 21st-century, but of course the system still exists so one could read Iolanthe as a topical disquisition on contemporary Britain. The production does not really take this road, preferring instead to just work the comedy with wonderful inventiveness. The director is Cal McCrystal of One Man, Two Guvnors fame (he was responsible for the physical comedy) and he certainly displays his eye for comic effect in this production, as does the designer, the recently deceased Paul Brown, whose fairies and peers find subtle and not so subtle resemblances. In this visual world the eccentricity of fairy attire is only surpassed by the exuberance of legal and military tradition. After watching this production one can no longer see the guardsmen at Buckingham Palace in anything but a satirical light. A nice touch was provided by a conferencier who created a genuine music hall or vaudeville atmosphere. Impressive also the ease with which the audience joined in with the refrain: „said I to myself – said I!“ in the Lord Chancellor’s song. This was a moment in which opera shaded into popular theatre and is probably only possible because of the familiarity of the audience with the work of G&S. This is in turn no doubt the legacy of the strong amateur theatre tradition, not only in the UK but throughout the English-speaking world.