Baffling, bright, and bonkers would be an accurate way to sum up the English National Opera’s take on Iolanthe. Having originally been performed back in 1882, the satirical comedy about the House of Lords versus a band of fairies has been somewhat rejuvenated, including a Boris Johnson look-a-like riding along on a bicycle.
To an opera-novice such as myself, the phrase ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ had previously meant very little. Now I know that Gilbert and Sullivan were co-creators of a range of comic operas back in the 19th century, including Iolanthe, a baffling tale of Iolanthe the fairy, who was banished from Fairyland for marrying a mortal man. Fast-forward twenty-five years and Iolanthe’s son, Strephon, is in love with a shepherdess, but unable to marry her as her guardian and his fellow politicians are all in love with her too. What may sound like a sweet story of fighting for true love is actually a lot creepier than it first seems.
It seemed odd that in 2018, when awareness of sexual harassment is rising, an opera in which a scene with twenty old men arguing over a nineteen-year-old woman would be allowed to go ahead and even be seen as comical. It was an uncomfortable scene made more bizarre by the shepherdess’ actual guardian (and therefore father-like figure) allowing it to happen and participating in it himself.
In defence of the show, it was written at a time when societal rules were drastically different to our own, and, for the time, perhaps the show was somewhat successful in displaying societies with both women and men in leadership roles. Designed as a comical satire, it is evident that the elderly politicians aren’t exactly model designs for authority figures, and the lives of both fairies and mortal men are indeed improved by the presence of the other. Or, at least, everyone seemed happier.
Beyond the obvious plot flaws and peculiarities (the fairies feeling giddy over their nephew is nearly as disturbing as the politicians fighting for the shepherdess), the show has its positive moments. The opening of the show was a purely instrumental number, with Timothy Henty doing a grand job of conducting a team of talented musicians. Their work was the most impressive aspect of the night, especially when Henty politely laughed along with a joke about his bald spot, delivered by a gently fireman-esque character.
The fireman, acting as the emcee for the night, introduced each act with a repertoire of mildly funny jokes and even some impressively self-aware jokes about how middle class the audience was. It was evident that the humour he was attempting at wasn’t designed for a twenty-something year old student, but even I would admit his extinguishing of the fire effects during the show was genuinely amusing.
Speaking of humour, most of the jokes throughout the production passed straight over my head. A prime example being the odd farmyard animal – including a unicorn - randomly appearing on stage. What seemed to me as a misaimed pantomime gag clearly worked as laughter erupted around me, but by the fourth sheep I had still not caught up with the herd.
Cal McCrystal, a director and actor known for his comic consultancy work on films such as Paddington and The World’s End, has recently turned to opera as a new adventure. The director, openly acknowledging the satirical nature of Iolanthe, decided to go ahead with the political jokes despite the current situation of British politics. Despite his supposed expertise, however, the few jokes that succeeded were repeated over and over until the audience was left with an uneasy feeling of a sitcom audience following a sign saying ‘laugh’. A prime example would be the use of stage hands dressed in black morph suits blindly searching around the stage for the props they were putting out. What was at first giggle-worthy grew into a sigh by the end of the song.
Logistically, the production was an overall success. The stage was colourfully decorated, an impressive large train bursting through a background garnered the awe it deserved, and the costumes were aptly colourful and fairy-like. The only two factors that would have benefited from alterations would have been the volume and subtitles. At times, the cast were on the quiet side, which was irritating during speech, but would have been fine during the songs as the songs were subtitled, had the subtitles always been on view. Repeated lines were sometimes only shown the first time of hearing. If you missed the line that crucial first time, tough luck.
Overall, Iolanthe had a community-hall feel about it, but the singers, despite whatever creepy lyrics they were singing, performed very well. Though, if you find yourself desiring an exploration of opera, it’s probably best to start with another one.
Where? London Coliseum When? Until 2 April How Much? From £12