There are many pieces of art that have much to admire; a timeless score, ingenious score, interesting characters. I have a seemingly endless list of shows, especially in the classical repertoire where I adore the music but blanche at the social politics. A piece of art does not exist in a vacuum and is representative of the attitudes and experiences of the creators and what the kind of art they were free to produce. I have very little doubt that there were gentlewomen in the audience on the opening night of Pirates of Penzance in 1879 who were grimacing into their fans whilst simultaneously admiring the music.
There is much to admire in GSOV’s latest iteration of Pirates. Nicholas Renfree-Marks has gone into the production with a clear reverence for what makes the text great; it’s irreverence, absurd wit, clever word play, glorious arias and cutting satire but he’s had the respect to breathe fresh life into it with some truly ingenious dramaturgical choices. The most brilliant and conspicuous being making the Pirate King a Queen. It adds an exciting subtext to the character’s rejection of ‘respectability’ and ‘civilisation’ (away to the cheating go you/where Pirates all are well to do’). It is implied that she is a suffragette named ‘Madcap Millie’ who has been missing for some time. Secondly, he has chosen to set it in a speculative interpretation of World War 1 with a steam punk inspired aesthetic. Costume Manager Susan Marshall have assembled some truly gorgeous and detailed steam punk costumes for the Pirates that make a few clever nods to their true noble origins and her designs for ladies ensemble are eye catching and stylish. The set design (Mr Renfree-Marks and Andrew McGail) is unfussy and functional leaving lots of room for the performers to embrace the space and allow the costumes to truly pop.
Unfortunately, despite its inspired concept the production frequently lacks vitality; chiefly in the movement and delivery of the dialogue and lyrics. It’s a pity, as the cast and orchestra sound stupendous under the baton of Trevor Henley but the same attention hasn’t been paid to the characterisation. There are some wonderful individual performances which I’ll explore below, but the ensemble scenes frequently struggle to rise to the material.
Carol Whitfield is charisma personified as the Pirate Queen; she makes the role completely her own with her sophisticated, tough and subtly funny performance. She doesn’t need to wantonly steal scenes (cough, cough Jon English) her mere presence dominates the space. I hope future productions embrace making playful and well thought out decisions in terms of casting. Thankfully, the same level of commitment has been made to the other female characters; Major Stanley’s wards and their chaperones all have singular characters not to mention seem to be trained in combat. Laura Slavin is a formidable Mabel. Beyond her crystalline soprano, I particularly enjoyed her down to earth and no-nonsense interpretation. It’s inspired that she’s a capable fencer in her own right. I can assume it’s a testament to Frederic’s naivete that he commissions the police in the first place, as the ladies would have made short work of the Pirates. Katrina Katz’s Ruth came into her own in Act 2 when she is given more to do than lust over her former charge. Her chemistry with Carol Whitfield is delightful and she has some spectacular background moments, given her treatment in the text her ending in the finale was particularly satisfying.
Major General Stanley could not have found a more appropriate interpreter in Andrew McGail. It’s a traditional performance for sure but it stands shoulder to shoulder with the greats, and he pulls of his patter numbers with aplomb. Nathan Michael Wright is a dashing, innocent and amicably wet Frederic. There is real tenderness in his duets with Mabel, and his tenor made many an audience member swoon.
It was a pleasant and comfortable night at the opera and I hope that other companies are inspired to continue breathing fresh life into the classics and embrace non-traditional casting choices.