“retains the wit and eloquence of the original while throwing in modern references and context”
“All art is quite useless”. So says Oscar Wilde in his preface to his only novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Wilde may be considered the forerunner of the Art for Art’s Sake aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, yet it was William S. Gilbert’s libretto for the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “Patience” that helped to create the image that Wilde would adopt. The central character, Reginald Bunthorne, was thought to have been modelled on Wilde whereas it was, in fact, the other way round.
“Patience”, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser performed comic operas, is a gentle satire on the whole movement of the time, but also targets the ephemeral nature of fashion, hero-worship, vanity and meaningless fads. Which is why it lends itself so well to being set in today’s society. Charles Court Opera do just that with their customary skill and inventiveness. Set in an English pub called ‘The Castle’, complete with dartboard, real ale and shot glasses, designer Simon Bejer dresses the characters in a mix of Belle Époque, Goth and Steampunk. We could be anytime, anyplace, anywhere; but we know it’s pretty contemporary. The language, too, retains the wit and eloquence of the original while throwing in modern references and context.
Wilton’s Music Hall is a difficult space acoustically and often suffers when amps are plugged in. Charles Court Opera rely on just piano and the nine glorious voices of the company. Because of illness, director John Savournin has boldly, and rather magnificently, stepped into the role of the effete and flowery poet, Bunthorne. Fawning over him are the Ladies Angela, Saphir and Jane (Meriel Cunningham, Jennie Jacobs and Catrine Kirkman); a tight knit trio in perfect harmony but each with an individualism that allows them to break away into gorgeous solo moments. Particularly Kirkman who opens the second act with ‘Sad is that Woman’s Lot’, lamenting the cruel effects of time while desperately trying to ignore the temptations of the Walker’s crisps on the bar.
The male counterparts are equally impressive. Matthew Palmer, Dominic Bowe and David Menezes are the Dragoon Guards returning to reclaim their Ladies’ hearts, but to no avail. They tackle the quick-fire lyrical challenges with ease, turning each tongue-twister into finely tuned punchlines. Matthew Siveter, as the hilariously vain Archibald Grosvenor who steers the ladies’ affections away from Bunthorne, bursts with satirical humour, at first relishing the attention, then wearying of the synthetic textures of this thing called ‘romantic love’. After all, he only has eyes for his childhood sweetheart, the eponymous Patience (Catriona Hewitson). The barmaid of the Castle Pub, she is thankful she’s never been in love, seeing how miserable it seems to make everybody. Hewitson charms the audience with a simple logic, crystal clear delivery, and striking soprano; and winning our hearts with a standout ‘Love is a Plaintive Song’.
The delivery of the dialogue is sometimes overwrought and unnecessarily hammed up, which the comedy doesn’t really need. The cast have enough presence to reach the far corners of the hall. We feel their joy too as. When “Patience” opened in 1881, Gilbert thought the show’s appeal would prove just as ephemeral as its subject matter, and wouldn’t be appreciated in years to come. Thankfully, Charles Court Opera have proved him wrong with their classy, timeless, imaginative and virtuosic production.
“Gethin Alderman relishes the opportunity to show off his versatile speaking voice”
This ingenious new play by Rachel Garnet takes on the theme of love but rather than offer up the age-old story of Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers it runs with the what-if possibility that Romeo’s friend Mercutio and his deadly enemy Tybalt should be struck by the same love arrow. We are given not a new version of R&J but a parallel story, a tale that is there but not explored in Shakespeare’s play. In so doing, we also get a fascinating origin story for Tybalt.
The production looks and sounds Shakespearean. A simple wooden stage (Set & Costume Designer Ruari Murchison) with a central double door and doors on the left and right provide a perfect symmetry and the opportunity for quick and versatile entrances and exits. Garnet’s text incorporates lines from the original alongside her own – drawing audience laughs and sighs of appreciation when recognised – and she deserves huge plaudits that this interpolation doesn’t sound contrived. The cast of three are dressed in doublets and hose with simple accoutrements where required and obligatory rapiers at their sides.
The Player (Gethin Alderman) sets the scene, immediately breaking the fourth wall with knowing looks to the audience and gentle clowning. He will continue to do this during scene changes to remind us we are watching just the telling of a story. He is joined by Mercutio (Connor Delves) and Tybalt (Tommy Sim’aan) for a rousing three-part harmony rendition of the Scottish folk song Twa Corbies and we know our evening is in safe hands.
Philip Wilson’s masterly direction has the three actors skipping light-footedly around the stage and only towards the very end of the piece does their pace and intensity begin to wane. Gethin Alderman relishes the opportunity to show off his versatile speaking voice in the many multi-roles he fulfils: a touch of Prince Charles about Lord Capulet, a smattering of Scottish for the Friar, a bit twee for Paris, and an aggressive Londoner for the beggar Salvatore. The largest laugh of the evening is brought about by his coy falsetto for an appearance of Juliet herself.
The role of the Player ties everything together around the main scenes between the two fateful lovers. Tommy Sim’aan’s war-mongering Tybalt undergoes the biggest journey. Beginning with macho posturing and showing off his fearsome sword play, we hear that maintaining his aggressive reputation is to secure his position within the house of Capulet. It takes a surprising kiss to throw him off guard and we share his confusion as Sim’aan drops the posturing façade and brings his voice down to a velvet undertone. The power of the kiss brings out the Prince of Cat’s inner kitten and has the strength to potentially end a conflict.
That kiss has come from the wastrel Mercutio as a means to distract Tybalt from seeing and therefore fighting with Romeo (another role for The Player). In a dashing red doublet, Delves plays the wine-happy party animal just on the right side of camp. Mercutio is out for a good time and to live for today until that kiss changes his life too.
The occasional song to the strumming of a mandolin lightens the mood as Tybalt and Mercutio strive to find a future. The three actors work superbly together – there is no weak link. Garnet’s poetry is clearly projected and there is no holding back during the raunchy bits either.
Not since Tom Stoppard’s exploration of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has there been such an audacious rewrite of Shakespearean off-stage antics.