Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria are charting unknown territory with their upcoming production of Thespis.

As actors, we like to believe that we are capable of playing any role, taking on any part and doing it well. It could be argued that that’s why we act; to prove we can do anything, be anyone. But could you take on the role of a God, and all the responsibilities that come with it? In Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria’s production of Thespis, this is precisely what a troupe of actors are required to do, while the now elderly Gods of Mount Olympus take a holiday in the mortal realm. With the thespians’ personal dramas conflicting with the roles they have taken on and affecting the mortal world, there is bound to be plenty of chaos, drama and hilarity for the audience to enjoy.

An Australian premiere, Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria’s production is one of the first productions of the show anywhere. Having never published the musical score, much of the music was lost, only three songs surviving, making productions very difficult to mount. In 2008 however, Anthony Baker adapted Gilbert’s libretto and Timothy Henty arranged a Sullivan-based score accompanied by some music by Jacques Offenbach and the first professional production of Thespis was staged since 1872. It is this adaptation that Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria present, directed by James Wright. With so few productions setting a precedent, Wright is thoroughly excited to have such a blank slate to work with. Few audience members will have any knowledge of the production and what to expect giving Wright significant artistic freedom.

However producing a lost work does pose several dilemmas. Wright admits that the audition process was particularly challenging for auditionees as there was very little material available to assist in their preparations. With no solid knowledge of the characters they were auditioning for, auditionees were mostly flying blind, hoping they showed enough versatility and range to qualify them for at least one of the characters. Certainly an audition to be faced by the brave! Wright had the good fortune to meet with the director of the 2008 production of Thespis, Anthony Baker, and so has an insight into the show few directors could hope for, certainly giving him a sound foundation from which to build a production such as this. Having been advised early on by those who had themselves already been through the process of rebirthing Thespis, Wright was well prepared to solve any problems the lost show could throw at him.

Thespis (or The Gods Grown Old as it is also known) was the first collaboration of duo W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan in 1871 and as such; fans of their later work will notice a distinct difference in Thespis. A mixture of political satire and parody of the grand operas of the day, Thespis was written as something closer to the Burlesque performances that the Gaiety Theatre, where it opened, was more accustomed to. Acting was more over-the-top and the showing of women’s legs (though always stockinged) was something of a feature. The humour was also different, and Thespis has been described as much “cheekier” than later Gilbert and Sullivan works. It also parodies Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and La Belle Helene, following a somewhat common practice in the Burlesque scene of “borrowing” prominent composers’ music and writing accompanying lyrics. The influence of Offenbach’s operas led to Timothy Henty’s decision to add the music of Jacques Offenbach when arranging the score for the new production. This had been attempted before; however the 2008 production was the first to do so successfully.

Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria’s production of Thespis will be an absolute treat for all Gilbert and Sullivan fans. The rebirth of a lost production is a rarity and this will be an Australian first not to be missed. Wright claims to have assembled a stellar cast to fill the roles of Gods and Thespians and it will be a delight to see them play out the chaos of the immortal role-swap. Love triangles, conflicts of character between the thespians and the Godly roles they are playing and the weight of responsibility all come through and, by the end of it, we will all be quite happy we are mere mortals and run no risk of having our personal dramas clash with the gross responsibility of being a God.

Thespis is playing at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University
April 16, 17 and 23 at 8.00pm
April 17 and 24 at 2.00pm
Phone 9905 1111 to book or book online at http://www.monash.edu.au/monart/
 

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