The Pirates of Penzance

Lyric Theatre (Opera Australia)


By Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert

Professional production

Was there ever a more joyous combination of words and music than in Pirates and was there ever a more absurd plot to illustrate the mindless, moralising, sanctimonious, blinkered and unquestioning Victorian love of duty, or perhaps that last word should be with a capital D. In its most purposeful and productive manifestation, Victorian Duty accomplished much that was needed in the socially unequal Victorian world of workhouses and gin palaces. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, though, Wesleyan Protestantism and Calvinism had successfully inculcated in the middle-class world of Gilbert and Sullivan’s audiences the sense of Duty as a convention to be adhered to as a necessary rule of life. The subtitle tells it all, “The Slave of Duty.”

This production is the first for Opera Australia in Brisbane after an absence of 18 years, and the inaugural production of a new partnership between OA and the Canberra Theatre Centre, QPAC and the Adelaide Festival Centre to tour throughout Australia, whether it be — as the program tells us — in a hayshed or an aircraft hangar (whoops, “hanger” in the program, wonder what that conjures up) — or as a performance on the ABC or one designed for schoolchildren. “We are here to spread the joy of opera,” we’re told. For people who have been lamenting for years the inability of OA to do just that beyond the centres of Sydney and Melbourne, this is obviously good news, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that it will last.

These laudable ambitions perhaps account for the set, designed by Richard Roberts from the Victorian College of the Arts, which quite obviously has to adapt to different stages and locations and to be easily portable. But it’s clever and it works superbly. We are greeted by a quite confined proscenium arch surrounded by twinkling lights with a panel curtain which has The Pirates of Penzance also picked out in twinkling lights. The action takes place on a raked area within this confined space, on which cut-out cartoon-like props such as trees are wheeled on by the cast, and the glorious ship in its various far and near appearances moves sideways across the stage on an invisible track. The wonder of this design is that nothing is static for very long. At one point we see a tiny ship on the horizon, a second later it reappears slightly larger, then again slightly larger, until the final appearance complete with pirates hanging off the rigging. Similarly when Frederic wishes to spy on the maiden daughters of the Major-General he nimbly climbs an invisible ladder behind the cut-out tree and then reveals himself by opening a panel disguised as branches. It’s simple, funny and very effective.

The singing is, as it should be, outstanding, both from the principals and from the choruses of maidens, pirates and policemen, and for the most part there is clear respect for Sullivan’s wonderful words; the patter songs particularly are models of enunciation. I found Taryn Fiebig’s Mabel did not always articulate very clearly, but then maybe her trilling, which was impeccable, is more important than her diction.

I wanted to be reverential about this production though. I wanted it to be brilliant. The Simon Gallagher and Jon English Pirates had become so familiar over the years that I thought that this was bound to be different and — dare I say it — better. So why did I feel rather unsatisfied? The much vaunted Australian stage physicality was well in evidence with the pirates leaping around like dervishes (particularly distracting in the case of a couple of them who wore brightly striped leotards), and in a sense this was a triumph of direction and choreography considering the confined playing area. It was the very conscious decision to parody Victorian theatrical melodrama, though, which paradoxically slowed the pace at times and, in combination with the exaggerated effeteness of the pirates, made for a lingering sense of disappointment. So the poses were suddenly frozen, the despairing hand to the temple employed at every setback. Anthony Warlow’s impersonation of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Silver (how many levels of mimicry can you have?) had obviously set the tone for this emphasis, but what works on screen doesn’t always work on stage, particularly when the piratical minions also camp it up as poor little orphans. By contrast John Bolton Wood as the very model of a modern Major-General in a very fetching red and white kilt, tight red jacket and white pith helmet played out his own comic agenda, his patter song an energetic delight, his shimmy and rotating sporran a wonder, and the “orphan/often” routine an enthusiastic nod to the popularity of Victorian music hall. Being short and fat, he is a far cry from Dennis Olsen’s memorably more urbane and elegant Major-General; staying in the late nineteenth century, but going down market — music hall rather than West End theatre — worked well for Wood.

I am a great fan of David Hobson, and his voice has hardly changed from the wonderful Baz Luhrman La Bohème . He looks wonderful whether as pirate dressed as jolly jack tar or elegant groom-to-be in silvery frock coat or white three-piece linen suit. It was therefore a pity that he had to fit in with the exaggerated rather than comic tone of the production, peering down Mabel’s throat as she trilled, and falling to his knees at her final high note. His more engaging encounters were with the lustily energetic Susan Johnston as Ruth, and made you wonder about the delights young Frederic might have experienced at bath time as he was growing up. There are advantages to being an orphan after all.

As Queen Victoria appeared in the giant full moon in the last scene and the pirates did a Ballet Troc de Monte Carlo routine, the chorus sang “we love our queen” and “peers will be peers” and rose petals rained down, and I wondered if G&S were also making fun of the Queen as the only mother of the nation — after all, most of the cast are technically orphans.

Unusually I have a plug for the program: with a fascinating long essay on nineteenth-century copyright laws or lack of them (aka piracy) and another on recordings of Pirates as well as all the usual stuff, it is worth every penny. And finally, where are the first-night tuxes of yesteryear? Not one in sight; only a few sequins. Indeed Jeffrey Archer looked as if he had just come straight from the first day of the Test at the Gabba. But, importantly, there were young people in this audience, a whole new enthusiastic generation of G&S lovers. So don’t let them down OA.

Directed by Stuart Maunder

Playing until 9 December 2006 (Tues-Sat at 7.30pm; matinees Wed, Sat)

Duration: 1hr 50min (including interval)

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Wed 22nd November 2006)