A very lively and enjoyable production of Princess Ida started last Tuesday at the Arts Theatre for two weeks. The dresses are bright and colourful, the sets are what one expects (I recognised one flat painted with purple rhododendrons from Patience in 1950), and the music is as delicious as ever.
I can never understand how people manage to turn up their noses at Gilbert and Sullivan. I once heard the dialogue described as flat and humourless, and the music as a series of hotted-up hymn-tunes. But if the truth be known, the dialogue is almost cruel in its smiling satire of the people speaking it. When a man says to a girl “Is your name Phoebe?”, she is sure to say not “Yes,” but (prevaricatingly) “Exactly.” Now her name is not exactly “Phoebe,”—she often has a surname and several other Christian names. Trust a woman to evade the issue. Perhaps she hopes to change her surname.
As for Sullivan’s music, it may have something of Purcell, of Handel, of Mozart, perhaps of Weber and Balfe, and it may sound like a hymn-tune but then a hymn-tune is not necessarily a thing to be snobbish about—for the fault of a hymn-tune is so often not in the tune itself but the people singing it and their manner of doing so. Again, a large amount of classical music is equally liturgical. I can call to mind no single slow movement not capable of being distilled into a hymn-tune or psalm-chant. Now in the Arts Theatre this week, the people singing are much more expert than, and the manner of singing is a great deal more hotted-up than one finds in most places where hymn-tunes usually reside. Even bible-punching revivalists on Brighton beach would find it hard to compete.
The Chorus sings well and sweetly, though it goes through its paces without smiling very much. A tune such as “Now hearken to my strict command” with its hip-hurrahing refrain, needs no end of a chuckle over the duplicate preparations of hospitality. Shall King Hildebrand welcome King Gama to the best bedroom or the best dungeon? Anyhow, let the best of both be prepared. And while they were not busy not-smiling, the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus were equally busy not-enunciating. This was unforgivable and very inconvenient. It is no hardship for singers to articulate clearly, but it is a nuisance for the audience to have to strain to follow the plot or catch a witty rhyme. This incoherence was general among soloists as well. Possibly some of the tempi were rushed, but still . . .
In general the production needed more definiteness at moments of drama. Reactions were poor not to say bedraggled. When the three ugly brothers were defeated in mortal combat nobody seemed to worry. Even their sister was unmoved, and the brothers received three cursory bandages on their heads, no matter where they had actually been wounded. Then when the Princess fell into the river, the stampede of anguished screaming maidens to the water’s edge was more like a lot of arthritic dowagers queuing for cake at a wedding reception. The whole business of Ida’s immersion is a bit unconvincing in any case. It needs care. In Tennyson’s “Princess,” she falls into a glamorous raging torrent with a craggy cataract. On stage the backdrop reminds one of those stagnant lilyponds in country-house gardens, where drowning is a feat of skill, for one is more likely to be asphyxiated face downwards in stinking mud, or be choked to death by chickweed. However, when Ida and Hilarion return from their cavorting in the stream, neither he nor she is wet. Her hair is a little disarranged and he has lost his fancy dress. They might even have just been sitting out at a dance in some house-party, —and not a trace of chickweed. Nevertheless, the battle itself in Act III is better; —care had obviously been taken.
In spite of all faults the spirit of the company is infectiously gay, and the show is vastly entertaining. Josephine Newman was a melodious though often inarticulate Princess Ida. Her top notes were a joy. Vera Halcrow was a beautiful battleship as Lady Blanche—though I could have wished for a little more malice (shall we say odium scholasticum) in her duet with Melissa “Now wouldn’t you like to rule the roost.” This duet lost much by being sung into the wings. Iris Wilson was a delightfully indeterminate Lady Psyche, just right in fact; and Barbara Hicks was as pert a minx as one could desire in the part of Melissa. Tom Woolley was an imposing King Hildebrand, while Austin Chapple made a sumptuously grotesque King Gama,—though a little too nimble, I thought, for one so monstrously crippled. Hilarion’s friends, Cyril (Derek Perry) and Florian (Roy Wilkinson) were excellent in voice and person, though Cyril got drunk a little abruptly in Act II and became a bit out of character. John Ford, as Hilarion himself, was head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in voice, clarity, smiling, and keeping still on stage. Soloists so often fidget. He did not. The three brothers of Ida, —and a more barbarous moronic crew I never saw—were delightfully portrayed by Messrs W. Armitstead, F. Brown and H. Heppenstall. Their strip-tease with armour in Act III was most exciting, and actually earned an encore (though one was not given).
All in all this is an excellent show, and (except for the finale of Act II which will doubtless be improved in the course of the week) I recommend it unreservedly, and congratulate the orchestra and conductor.