Thursday, 2 July 2015

Gilbert & Sullivan - Traditional V. Modern



OK, so this post is something distinctly non-political, for a change. As someone who grew up around Gilbert and Sullivan amateur productions, and who has performed in such productions of all of their (still existing - I've never done a Thespis) works, this is, you could say, a subject of lifelong interest (quite literally!) for me.

For many, many years there have been arguments going on about how much, if at all, productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas can or should be 'modernised', and what kinds of 'modernisation' are 'acceptable'. I've engaged in such discussions many times, both with fellow G&S-type people locally and in the virtual sphere (mainly via the old Savoynet email list), and they can get pretty heated, believe it or not! Some people are very passionate about protecting their beloved Savoy operas from being 'fiddled about with', and others can be equally passionate about making changes of various kinds, perhaps in order to try to make them more appealing to the modern audience.

We've seen various attempts at 'modern' productions professionally, of course, from the musically re-orchestrated and 'jazzed-up', to the ones taking place on wierd but apparently 'artistic' set constructions, to the ones set somewhere other than where the libretto says they are set. There have also been many little things added and altered over the years in various amateur productions. Some of these things are popular among some, many are less than popular among the 'G&S purists'.

My personal feeling has always been that many of the professional 'updates' have simply been entirely unnecessary - they just haven't really added anything of value to that production. They have been change for changes sake, so to speak. Why change the orchestration - what's wrong with the way Sullivan wrote it? Why have it take place on a sloping and undulating bare set - what does that add? Why set Mikado, for example, in 'not Japan' when the lib says that it is in Japan (even if it is a pretty unconvincing Victorian facsimile/caricature of the country!) - what is that saying that is of any value to the production? I always think that these kind of things are just superficial layers, usually just being added over otherwise fairly traditional script interpretations, to make something seem 'new and different' for the sake of doing that. There's no really value added for the production - it's just an excuse for using different sets and costumes (or in the case of the first example, possibly sometimes performers who can't really sing what they need to in order to play the part!).

That doesn't mean I fall into the camp of the 'traditionalists', though - certainly not! However, if a director has reached the point of boredom with Gilbert's scripts that they feel the need to play about in such superficial ways just to relieve the monotony of the same century-old material, perhaps they ought to look for something else to direct! Gilbert was not just a fine writer of neat little comedy songs (that's a bit like dismissing Sullivan as a composer because he could write the 'rumpty-tumpty' stuff when he needed to leave Gilbert's words clearly audible, which many sadly do) - the scripts he wrote actually have a great deal of depth that can be drawn out of them if only someone were to take the time to do that instead of just buying some no doubt pretty, but largely unsuitable to the original setting, new dresses for the chorus.

 When a modern director takes on a Shakespeare play, he or she often goes through the script carefully, considering the characters and how he or she can bring them to life in a 'believable' way for the audience. That's the kind of approach to modernisation that I don't think we see enough of in G&S productions - character development and presentation in a way that is based entirely on the script rather than on the century of tradition about who the characters are. There are many characters that can be presented in entirely (or subtly) different ways from the traditional interpretations by essentially changing only the way they say the lines and interact with each other. 

For example, it has often been speculated that the Mikado could be presented with Nanki-Poo as the villain of the piece (without changing settings, costumes, etc.). Most arch-traditionalists hate the idea, of course, but many modernists shy away from taking it beyond a theoretical argument and onto the stage. Now I do remember discussing this many years ago on Savoynet emails, and actually getting the arch modernisers and traditionalists to gang up on me (not nastily, I hasten to add!) when I suggested that not only could it be done but that people should actually do it. I don't mean create a 'new tradition' for everyone to follow, of course, but merely that we shouldn't shy away from doing such things. The old 'book' should no longer be seen as somehow 'sacred' when it comes to productions, and that should extend to character interpretation, in my view.

Gilbert was an accomplished playwrite, and he know that his scripts would be open to interpretation by future directors - indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that he welcomed direction that didn't religiously follow what he had himself done with the works. He wrote many characters with different sides to them that aren't really fully explored in the traditional production, and Nanki-Poo is certainly one of those. The whole piece can be turned on its head by bringing out those other sides of various characters with in it and having them interact accordingly, and without having to change the script or the setting.

Although these are, of course, comic works, in order to do that successfully I think you have to 'play it straight' rather than make some kind of cheesy 'shock statement'. To use another example, Pirates can, in my opinion, be turned on its head by making Mabel into a dominant and manipulative (and possibly less attractive!) character (and Frederick into a bit of a wimp being caught in a trap of his own duty to her). Now you could do that by actually making Mabel a whips-and-chains dominatrix kind of character, but I don't really think that kind of 'shock tactic' is necessary, or as interesting. Indeed, I think it would detract from the actual character re-interpretation that the director is (or should be) trying to achieve.

My point, though, is that 'modernisation' in the sense of bringing new life to the material doesn't have to mean 'modernisation' in the sense of 'trying to make it more modern' by fiddling with costumes and settings in a way that isn't true to the original script. That's not to say that such changes of setting can't work well, of course - for example, I was in a production some years ago of Utopia, Ltd which was set in a small island somewhere off the coast of Wales rather than in the traditional vaguely South Pacific setting. That worked extremely well, in my opinion, because it actually added an extra dimension to play with without losing any of the sense of the script itself and how it worked overall. In other words, there was a viable dimension and point to it beyond a vague 'hey, let's modernise it' whim of change for change's sake. I also have no issue with updating the words to the odd verse or song here and there - G&S was 'satirical' in its day, and some of those references can very easily and effectively be updated.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that there is nothing wrong with a new G&S production being different from previous productions. Nothing wrong at all, in fact - it's something that should be welcomed, and that everyone involved at every level should by striving to achieve successfully. To me there seems to be little point in presenting a 'museum piece' (unless it is actually a fully researched and precise 'museum piece' of the details of the original production - that in itself could be quite an interesting exercise, of course). There's little point in an amateur society, for example, just doing the same old visual gags in an endlessly repeated decade-or-so separated round of productions that barely change at all. We've all seen those old productions (and if I see another presentation of the same old 'broken fans' gag I think I might actually scream!), and if we haven't I'm sure there's no shortage of videos! There should always be new ideas and new life brought in, but there are so many ways to do that without resorting to cheap 'modernisation' tactics that add little and potentially detract a great deal.

So, to sum up, go back to basics - Who are the characters? How do they (or can they) interact? How can I draw something different from the script? etc., etc. - before falling back on tacky techniques of changing the costumes and setting it somewhere where it isn't actually set. Forget the 'traditions'....all of them, pretty much! Think about everything, but make sure that you are always trying to add value by bringing out a new element rather than just trying to make it superficially seem 'different'. That is how we will get real diversity into our G&S productions without just ruining the works themselves by trying to impose something entirely different and inappropriate on top of them just to 'change things because we can and we're bored'!

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