Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s Iolanthe: When Fairies get Political

The orchestra and cast of Iolanthe. Photo credit: Thomas Smith

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society presented Iolanthe, with beautiful lyricism and contemporary political melodrama, at the Greenwood Theatre on its 30th anniversary.

My introduction to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan incidentally came from one of Iolanthe’s directors, Peter Swallow, who led a seminar on Classical Victorian Burlesque, which evolved from an early domestic European operatic genre, last semester. Armed with the knowledge that Gilbert and Sullivan belonged to the ‘Operetta’ class, which was by definition: ‘usually on a light or humorous theme and typically having spoken dialogue’, I was fairly confident of the type of performance I would encounter that evening.

As ‘light or humorous’ as it was, however, I was not expecting to feel shivers down my spine (no, really), a sensation which so often accompanies music of a largely opposing genre to comedy. But in the opening scene, when the Chorus of Fairies and Chloe Phillips-Bartley and Victoria Zicos as Cecilia and Leila begin the show with ‘Tripping hither, tripping thither’, the rich and harmonious lyricism of their voices and the live orchestra are truly spell-binding.

They set the scene amongst the painted shrubbery of Fairyland, for Iolanthe who has been banished because, contrary to fairy-law, she fell in love with a mortal and has a son: an Arcadian shepherd Strephon, who is ‘half-fairy, half-man’. She has been spared death on the condition she must never approach her mortal husband again. Don’t let the fairies put you off though, because from the very beginning, albeit with humour, there are serious oppositions between law and love, immortal and mortal that the Operetta must test and resolve within the course of the performance.

The political elements of Gilbert and Sullivan’s original fit surprisingly well for the 21st Century audience. The presence of light-hearted, but often demeaning portrayal of the House of Lords seems to imbue an additional meaning; perhaps that not much has changed since Iolanthe was first performed in 1882? Something Peter said about Victorian Burlesque in his seminar, was that it wanted to ‘mock travesty, to parody the high and turn it to the low’. The same could be said for this Operetta, in which the pesky and self-confessed ‘brainless’ House of Lords prance around in their red silken capes, moustaches. Iolanthe does culminate in unity which sees the House of Lords and the Fairies pair off in marriage as the fairy laws are reversed and re-written. Yet even so, they have now quite literally ‘gone off with the fairies’!

Lani Strange as Phyllis and Daniel Timms as Strephon have some wonderful moments, my favorite in ‘None Shall Part Us’, a love duet in which they sweetly express, with silky musicality, their devotion to each other. Maria Zicos who portrays the titled Iolanthe, has the most magnificent hip-length red hair with a voice to match and her mortal husband the Lord Chancellor as played by Rob Sanders-Hewett manages to fit an extraordinary amount of words into his tongue-tying solos. Natalie Reeve superbly portrays quite a creepy Earl Tolloller and John Cullen-Kennedy a first year philosophy student as an Earl Mountarat made a tuneful debut. Not to mention Elizabeth O’Donne who was especially exceptional as the Fairy Queen.

The varied cast boasts a wonderful diversity with equal gender ratios, members from across all age groups and with both long standing and new members taking on leading roles. They also come from varying backgrounds, Lani Strange who works in marketing, although benefitted from singing lessons at a young age, has had no formal training outside of this. Maria Zicos’ Iolanthe studies the evolutionary history of sloths but has been part of G&S productions since 2010. These are only some examples from the multi-talented cast and the extent of their dedication.

Lani tells Roar, “Some people learn to sing through the society!” and for their next production: HMS Pinafore and Trial by Jury, “the chorus is completely open for anyone to join! We definitely want as many people as possible to come and get involved.” And despite some of the more prestigious events the society is part of, namely the International Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Harrogate, newcomers can expect fun rehearsals, weekly trips to the pub and a Summer Ball.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that I chose to go to Iolanthe alone (thinking it would feel liberating). Walked a 50 minute journey from Strand Campus in the freezing snow (thinking it would be scenic). I arrived lonely, frozen to the core and no longer entirely enthusiastic. However, there was something so magical and transformative in the air that by the end of the evening Iolanthe had both thawed my frozen limbs with a heart-warming performance and rose the crowd into a standing ovation. I won’t however, be going to a G&S production alone again. It was far too good and far too funny not to have someone to share the experience with.

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