Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Buxton G&S Festival 2009 

I have just spent a week at the 16th International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton. I loved it.

I won’t review the shows here. I saw too many and have left too long a gap since I saw them before writing this to do any of them justice. I will mention one or two in passing among my general impressions of the week. Besides other people have written some excellent reviews that can be found easily on the web. Just look.

Another note before I dive into this … although I have seen quite a few G&S productions in the last decade, I still consider myself very much a G&S neophyte. I can’t sing and I believe I am almost musically dyslexic, which combined with my almost paralysing self-consciousness in front of any crowds larger than six people means that I could never take part in any amateur G&S production. I content myself with watching the shows and enjoying them but that’s about it. As a consequence, I don’t know the shows in as much detail as many of the fans. Most of them appear to have taken part in at least one G&S show in their lifetime and therefore know everything.

Anyway, back to the festival …

The shows were consistently excellent with every cast demonstrating energy, talent and, very importantly for me, excellent diction. Being able to hear the words makes a huge difference and turns a confusing mass of music and costumes into a real story.

My favourites during the week have to include the Opera della Luna productions of The Sorcerer and Parson’s Pirates and, of course, this year’s show from Festival Productions Ireland, The Gondoliers.

Festival Productions are always outstanding and have won awards galore in Buxton ever since they first took part in the festival three years ago with their version of The Mikado. This year was no different and Gondoliers was to the same very high standard with an exceedingly enthusiastic chorus and marvellous principals. It was another multiple award winning performance.

Parson’s Pirates is not, strictly speaking, G&S. It is essentially a play about the casting session for a production of Pirates of Penzance in the first half and a truncated Pirates in the second half. Like all Luna productions, however, it has a very small cast with lots of doubling of roles, giving ample opportunity for humour. It also has a non-existent fourth wall with the audience apparently attending as if they were auditioning for the production’s chorus. We had to sing along with the Mikado song “Tit willow” – half the audience had to sing “willow” and the other half “tit” prompted by some very dubious looking characters. There is something delightfully silly about having to repeatedly shout “tit!” in an opera house.

The Sorcerer brings me to the subject of the fans. I have previously mentioned how G&S fans are very similar to science fiction fans. I am one of the tiny minority of people who have been to SF conventions and the G&S festival and I can tell you that there is very little difference between the core fan groups.

The demographic of the average G&S fan is, however, a little bit older and much more conservative with a tendency towards scandalised conversations at breakfast. The hardcore older fan knows what he or she likes and it isn’t change.

Last year there was a production of Ruddigore that transferred the action to a village cricket match. I have seen a few versions of Ruddigore and thought that this one was very innovative, funny and rather well done. You should, however, have heard the gasps of horror at the hotel the following morning. It had not been done the Traditional Way, the Right Way. All that had changed, however, was the set and some of the words both in the dialogue and some of the songs. I’m not sure how that is wrong, to be honest, as there is a well-established tradition of contemporising some of the songs. The Little List song in The Mikado, for instance, is always “adjusted” to pet hates of the day such as people talking too loudly on their phones or MP’s expenses fiascos.

This year’s Sorcerer provoked a similar reaction. It was set in the 1960s rather than the nineteenth century. The set, the costumes and some of the dialogue had changed to reflect the times but not very much. There were two other changes which I will have to explain after describing some of the normal plot.

The regular version of Sorcerer concerns the desire of a couple deeply in love to have their entire village share in their joy. To this end they enlist the help of a local sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, to provide them with a love philtre which they administer to the village in cups of tea. At this point the entire village falls asleep, the curtain falls and we shun the overpriced ice cream in the foyer.

Act two opens with the villagers waking and they fall in love with the first person they see who has also drunk some of the love potion. There are some very odd pairings but the experience is viewed by the young couple as a huge success – so much so that the young woman wants to take the potion at the same time as her young swain so that they can remain in love forever. He’s not so keen on that but she takes the potion anyway and falls in love with the vicar. The mess is eventually sorted out and people pair up with the ones they are “meant” to be with.

The Luna production had two relatively minor yet radical changes. Oddly only one caused tongues to wag.

The first was that the reaction to the potion caused its victims to be a bit spaced out before they fell asleep. They looked happily drunk to me but the opinion of the blue-rinse fans was negative: “oh – it was all about drugs!” What utter rubbish! One scene with a euphoric reaction to a love potion and apparently the whole village is on heroin. I don’t think so.

The second change was that it was the man who wanted to take the potion to make the couple’s love permanent and it is he who falls in love with the male vicar. Amazingly, I heard no tongues wagging about that. I like to think that it’s because the world has moved on and no-one finds same-sex love that difficult but it’s more likely that the nay-sayers were so scandalised by that they couldn’t even speak about it or that they viewed it so terribly wrong that it didn’t even need articulating. Or maybe they held their tongues about that one when talking to a gay couple.

One final point and it isn’t about the fans or the shows but about manners. During one of the performances a woman and her husband saw fit to chatter all the way through. No amount of shushing or glaring (from myself, David and the man sitting between me and the woman’s husband all at once) stopped them. Nor did the presence of the usherette in the next seat. They just chattered away without a thought.

I gather that we Brits are unusual in our dislike of this sort of thing. Other countries don’t seem to mind people talking (or worse) throughout performances. I don’t think we are wrong in this. If I pay to see a show, then it’s the show I want to see and hear and not some stupid woman with verbal diarrhoea blabbering away as if she were sitting at home watching some mindless sitcom. Also, to my mind, the people on the stage have put in a great deal of effort and it is only fair to give them our full attention.

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