The arts scene might be solely interested in cultural earnestness and agenda-pushing at the moment, but judging by the packed-out matinée performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe at the ENO last week, audiences still yearn for frothy and frivolous operetta.
Especially when this piece of pure escapism is so wonderfully executed.
Gilbert and Sullivan do not sit well with modish sensibilities, but people love it – many UK universities even have their own thriving Gilbert and Sullivan societies.
Iolanthe is an exceedingly unsubtle political satire, sending up the pomposity and privilege of blue-blooded hereditary Peers, who are set against the wiles of a troupe of Fairies. The British are just as obsessed with class as they were when the opera was first put on in 1882, so the comedy (the most context-bound art form viz. all of Aristophanes) still makes us laugh.
“Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!” chant the Lords boisterously, downing their wine with gusto.
Besides the appearance of a mop-headed Boris Johnson and a wiry, thick-eye-browed Jacob Rees-Mogg as ‘Lords’, the production thankfully avoids contemporary resonance and lets the text speak as it was intended – funny, uproarious and driven by a sense of boisterous gusto.
The wit of Sullivan’s music offers the perfect vehicle for the director Cal McCrystal to exploit his slap-stick physical theatre credentials. McCrystal is best known for his work on the Paddington films (for which he was a comedy consultant) and his One Man, Two Guvnors at the National – a production which caught the attention of the ENO’s artistic director Daniel Kramer.
Sequences of ludicrous horseplay induce roars of laughter from the audience. Act 1’s touching love duet between Iolantha’s son Strephon (Marcus Farnsworth) and his lover Phyllis (Ellie Laugharne) is hilariously undermined by ‘stagehands’ making clumsy attempts to coax large model sheep onto an Arcadian stage setting, reminiscent of Gainsborough.
The choreographed ‘Saturday Night Fever’ gestures of Iolanthe (sung brilliantly by Samantha Price) were, perhaps, overdone by the second half, but on the whole the routines (choreographed by Lizzi Gee) were amusing and well-judged.
The company of fairies “tripping hither, tripping thither” in clod-hopping fashion was particularly memorable.
No expense was spared with the dazzling set designs – the scenery shifted around with real aplomb from Rococo splendour to a cartoonish jungle of over-sized flora (the Fairy Kingdom), and the Gothic magnificence of the Palace of Westminster. On a sombre note, they were conceived by the late Paul Brown who sadly passed away before rehearsals began.
To borrow a phrase employed by the Peers, there was a lot of “Tantantara tzing boom” about this production – and the cast and orchestra, under Timothy Henty, clearly relished its frivolity. It was a riotous, exuberant affair, leaving the audience in no doubt that Sullivan’s music is vastly improved with distractingly extravagant on-stage capers.
Iolanthe runs at The Coliseum until 7 April.