Local Culture: Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’

Iolanthe 1

If Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and 1980s BBC political comedy ‘Yes, Minister’ had a baby, the result might well be something like Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ (Eye-oh-LAN-thee). It’s a comic opera with a plot which is cheerfully ridiculous and punctuated by musical numbers.

The Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Society toured it through the lower North Island recently, and having missed it in Whanganui (because we were at a performance of Requiems by Mozart and Fauré in Palmerston North), the Significant Other and I headed back to Palmerston North to catch it at the historic Regent Theatre.

The plot is, of course, implausible and convoluted: 25 years ago the fairy Iolanthe was banished from Fairyland as the penalty for marrying a mortal – her death sentence commuted because she agreed to leave her husband and never see him again. But the Queen of the Fairies was unaware that Iolanthe was already pregnant. When the other fairies plead with their Queen to restore Iolanthe she relents, at which point she introduces her son Strephon to his aunties.

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‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ meets ‘Yes Minister’.

Strephon is in love with the beautiful Phyllis, a ward in Chancery, and they plan to marry. But Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, is in love with her, as, it seems, is the entire House of Lords, who are difficult to distinguish from Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits (except that they sing about it). Add a comic misunderstanding when Phyllis sees Strephon with his mother – who is, of course, immortal and unageing – and you have the perfect recipe for a comedy.

Perhaps because they were British, Gilbert and Sullivan loved a satisfactory ending, and all ends well for everyone concerned, but there are a lot of laughs along the way.

Iolanthe, which premiered in 1882, was the first of the famous Victorian partnership’s works to premiere at their purpose-built Savoy theatre, and the staging took advantage of the modern electric lights to produce a range of special effects. The initial run was 398 performances, and it opened in New York City at the same time, touring the USA and the UK and reaching Australia in 1885.

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The fabulous interior of the Regent on Broadway.

While the Regent Theatre is somewhat more modern, having been designed in 1929, built in the 1930s, and renovated in the late 1990s, it was nonetheless a thoroughly appropriate setting which added a certain ambiance to the whole experience. One touch which for some reason I particularly liked were the stripy socks worn by the two ‘comic relief’ fairies, Celia and Leila. The other fairies wore plain white stockings and one in particular stood out as being wonderfully in-character, which made her a joy to watch in the background.

It was my dad who first introduced me to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and I always enjoy them.

Are you a fan of G&S?

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