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Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King [Photo by Tristram Kenton]
11 May 2015

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King

Photos by Tristram Kenton


In his contribution to the ENO programme booklet, ‘Gilbert & Sullivan: some reflections’ (which reproduces an article which Leigh published in the Guardian in November 2006), the director sets out his understanding of Gilbert’s means and ends:

‘The operas have often been misunderstood. They are referred to as satires, which they are not. There may be satirical elements in Iolanthe or Utopia Limited, but Gilbert’s true intention is never to draw specific parallels. He merely holds up his mirror to the world, and reflects on its madness. Similarly misunderstood is his much-criticised attitude to elderly women. He is not attacking them; he is doing no more than lament the way life is. We all grow old, and the plain and the ugly have a harder time than the beautiful.

If these shows have fallen into disrepute over the years, it is because directors have failed to understand their raw edge. This results in boring, bland, sentimental, self-conscious, often gratuitously camp productions, which entirely miss the point.’

Making his operatic directorial debut with this staging of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera, Leigh now has the chance to show us how to avoid tedious mundanity and kitschy mawkishness. He has offered an analysis of what he terms ‘the stylistic alchemy of Gilbert's art as a dramatist’: ‘His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way. Indeed, to disguise a subversive anarchist bomb as bourgeois respectability.’ And, this production lives up to those ideals. But, the ‘deadpan’ approach also runs the risk of snuffing out both the dissent and the fun.

Designer Alison Chitty’s complementary colour scheme is a beguiling emblem of a ‘wrong-side-up’ world. Blue bangs against orange, red against green, just as order slides into disorder. As conductor David Parry leads the Orchestra of English National Opera through a detailed, nuanced and surprisingly genteel reading of the overture, we are presented with a midnight blue front-drop adorned with a shining ring of cobalt, at the base of which is perched a complacent seagull, the circle marred with a vigorous orange splurge — the sort of wildly exuberant, rebellious gesture which Timothy Spall might have made as the painterly protagonist in Leigh’s recent film Mr Turner.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Claudia Boyle, Robert Murray and ENO Chorus and company (c) Tristram Kenton.pngClaudia Boyle as Mabel, Robert Murray as Frederic and chorus

So, we are in a Dali-esque world. Is the circle a rabbit hole from Alice’s Wonderland down which we will plunge into a world of inversions and subversions? Later the colours will reverse: a parrot will squat within a hanging orange loop. And, in Act 2 the circle will become a cameo medallion from which the disapproving frown of Queen Victoria will glower. In the first instance, as the curtain rises it is revealed to be a foreshadowing of a ‘porthole’ through which jut the orange deck-planks of the pirates’ rigging-bedecked ship.

The circle can be split and pulled apart, elongated across the stage, mimicking the movements of a camera from short to long range. In Act 1 the hemispheres slide outwards to reveal a lurid green stairway — a slippery seaweed escalator down which the Major-General and his daughters effect their arrival on the shore. In Act 2, the squashed oblong contains a cross on a pedestal — Victorian hypocrisy? — the only item of ‘furniture’ decorating the Major-General’s chambers. But, the design is also limiting; in the opening scene there is little room for the pirates to do more than wave a flag and slap a thigh. When the Major-General’s dozens of daughters gather on the shore — their Victorian bustles replicating all the shades of the ocean from its creamy white horses to its deep-blue depths, via every tint of emerald and aquamarine — the foreshortened stage forces them to huddle on mass, first right then left. The marauding pirates, claiming these feminine fancies for their wives, hoist them aloft and rustle their ruffs, but cannot actually whisk them away.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Robert Murray, Joshua Bloom, Alexander Robin Baker, ENO Chorus and Rebecca de Pont Davies (c) Tristram Kenton.pngRobert Murray as Frederic, Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King, Alexander Robin Baker as Samuel, ENO Chorus and Rebecca de Pont Davies as Ruth

The direction is unfussy: although there are thoughtful details and nuances, on the whole Leigh has decided to tell it straight and let Gilbert’s irony do its own work (there has been no meddling with the libretto). And, his cast served him well, if cautiously, on this opening night. Joshua Bloom was terrific as the Pirate King: a Dustin Hoffmane-sque Hook — all wry winks and sinister smiles - he beguiled with his ingenuity, honesty and innate warm-heart. For this listener, with his resonant tone, athletic projection and meticulous comic nous — and, his disreputably shabby black tricorn — Bloom stole the show. As Frederic, tenor Robert Murray — his knotted ‘kerchief less impressive than Bell’s splendid skull-and-cross bone adorned headgear — sang endearingly but, after the opening scenes he was under-directed and made less dramatic impact. Jonathan Lemalu’s generous bass-baritone made him a striking Sergeant of Police, and his Act 2 number, ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, was one of the highlights of the evening.

Rebecca de Pont Davies was a characterful Ruth — the muddled maid whose auditory mix-up (pilot/pirate) is the start of Frederic’s woes; her excruciatingly emphatic enunciation of Gilbert’s rhymes in ‘When Frederic was a little lad’ was a wry reminder of her phonic blunder. As Mabel, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle rivalled Bloom for candid audacity, cheekily claiming Frederic as her beau, and flitting from coquetry to feistiness. Boyle’s Mabel sparkled and captivated; vocally she gleamed. Making her ENO debut, soprano Soraya Mafi (second prize winner in the recent 2015 Kathleen Ferrier competition) was a lively Edith. The chorus and orchestra performed with style and discipline, and Parry brought out the beauty of the score.

ENO The Pirates Of Penzance Joshua Bloom and Andrew Shore (c) Tristram Kenton.pngJoshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Andrew Shore as Major-General Stanley

So far, so unobjectionable: but, subversive? Anarchic? Andrew Shore, veteran musical comedian, ticked all the right boxes as the Major-General: sporting an extravagantly plumed helmet and imperial scarlet, he delivered the patter of ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ with a metronomic exactitude which seemed to uphold Victorian certainty and presumption, but at a breakneck pace which made a mockery of such self-assurance and values. Leigh has remarked that, ‘Gilbert saw the world as a chaotic place, in which our lives are brutal accidents of birth, fate and human blunder, a jungle of confusion and delusion, where we all aspire to be other than who we are, and where nobody is really who or what they seem to be.’ Yet, there was a predictability about Shore’s interpretation that conveyed little of what Leigh describes as the innate ‘dark side’ and ‘hard edge’ of G&S.

The newspaper Fun was launched in 1861 and for ten years Gilbert wrote articles and poems for the magazine. This production, for all its coherence and authenticity, seemed markedly lacking in ‘fun’. Perhaps it was a mere diversion for Leigh, who may be more focused on Peterloo than Penzance (his next film is to tackle the 1819 massacre in Manchester) but the ENO management need this production to succeed. Two extra performances have been added to the run, but, while advance booking is high, one questions whether the pirates will have the lasting pulling power of the Jonathan Miller’s Mikado which returns in the autumn, thirty years after it first appearance. The trouble with (and joy of) G&S is that the operas are all individual but also absolutely alike. Miller made The Mikado his own. Topsy Turvy — warm-hearted and droll — was essentially about two men’s devotion to the theatre, and Leigh’s love and reverence for this piece is clear: but, it needs a bit more rough-handling.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Major-General Stanley: Andrew Shore, The Pirate King: Joshua Bloom, Frederic: Robert Murray, Sergeant of Police: Jonathan Lemalu, Mabel: Claudia Boyle, Ruth: Rebecca de Pont Davies, Samuel: Alexander Robin Baker, Edith: Soraya Mafi, Kate: Angharad Lyddon, Isabel: Lydia Marchione; Conductor David Parry, Director Mike Leigh, Designer Alison Chitty, Lighting Designer Paul Pyant, Choreographer Francesca Jaynes. English National Opera, Saturday 9th May 2015.

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