G&S Updated for 2012

May 2 2012 | By More

EdG&SS Animated over the Fairy Opera

Main image for Iolanth, from Edinburgh Gillbert and Sullivan Society. Image copyright Tom McDermott

Main image for Iolanth, from Edinburgh Gillbert and Sullivan Society. Image copyright Tom McDermott

By Thom Dibdin

The Edinburgh Gilbert and Sullivan Society are making a virtue out of a crisis this week as they move from their usual venue at the King’s into the mighty space of the Festival Theatre for their production of Iolanthe.

Central to the move is the use of the theatre’s technical facilities. The company will use two huge projectors to screen professionally produced animation from Tom McDermott to help tell the story – which  pits the supernatural powers of the Fairy Queen against that greatest of Britain’s traditional institutions: the House of Lords.

The company’s long-time director Alan Borthwick told the Annals that while the approach is a totally new one for the company, it is still within the traditional values of G&S.

“We have got a nice big company of over 70 people, so we wanted to use the whole stage,” he said. “It was difficult to hire a set that would fit the Festival Theatre stage but, because we have an animator on board who seemed very keen to try something new, we decided to get a new set and use animation. We hope it will bring some  sort of modern magic into what is already a magical G&S piece.

“We’re making the most of the theatre’s size rather than having to compromise the show by bringing in blacks at the side and reducing it to the size of the King’s”.

Scaling up doesn’t only cause problems for the set, there is also the problem of being heard at the back of the auditorium. Not too difficult in the big ensemble numbers, but a tricky problem in the more intimate moments.

To overcome the stress the company will be using radio mikes for the first time, as Alan Borthwick explains: “The idea is that you forget you are wearing them. In the King’s we mike the stage, so that the voices get just a little bit of an enhancement. In the Festival Theatre we feel we need more of that.”

If the company relied solely on stage microphones, the singers would be forced to cluster around them, spoiling the look of the whole piece.

Anachronistic modern things

Gilbert’s political satire remains surprisingly topical, if not as hard hitting as when it was written. When the Fairy Queen sends Strephon into Parliament, she resolves his dithering over party allegiance by returning him as a Liberal Conservative – a quip which has a different relevance today than when it was first made. Then there is a Lord Chancellor consumed by conflicts of interest between love and duty in his two capacities and a pair of hereditary peers with ‘no capacity whatever’.

There is still room to update, as Alan Borthwick says: “It caused great offence to some of the peers of the day and some of the royal family. 130 years later that is obviously not going to be so strong, so we have done something to up the satyrical side of things and brought in some anachronistic modern things.”

Some of these will involve the expected updates and new words to the patter songs, to reflect current news. But it is not only the words to the songs which are being amended, it is their presentation, although Borthwick is careful to emphasise that too much updating can spoil the piece and make it lose its Victorian feel.

He says: “The big patter song in this is the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare song. In fact we haven’t changed a word of that because he is talking about what it is like to have a really bad night. What we have done is use our animation. It should really enhance the song because it is  very scary – a feeling of everything closing in on you.”

Iolanthe plays the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, May 1-5. Tickets are available from the Festival Theatre box office on 0131 529 6000 or from the website www.festivaltheatre.org.uk

Edinburgh Gillbert & Sullivan Society website: www.edgas.org

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