The Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance listed among his accomplishments the ability to "whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, Pinafore", and if there is any justice most Dublin theatre-goers will soon be able to make the same boast. As all of the newspapers have clearly affirrmed, Art 0 Briairi's production is a palpable hit. It is spirited, inventive, stylish, colourful, and it pulsates with intelligent energy. Even Fintan O'Toole in the Sunday Tribune who convicts it of stopping "short of full-blooded parody" and being a "half send-up" cannot deny the excellence of the perrformances, choreography and presenntation under his delightful headline "A Tar Is Born". But his reservation must be taken up - what he sees as the problem of producing Gilbert and Sullivan "in a modern context."
In the first place I could find no evidence in the Gaiety production of a send-up or parody. You simply cannnot send up Pinafore - or any of the sprightlier Gilbertian operettas - beecause they are so busy sending themmselves up. When the love-sick Ralph Rackstraw - in this case superbly rendered by William Renton - mopes his way onstage singing 'Ah WellDay' he is already mocking the tradiitional lover. But when he turns to his melodious and sympathetic ship-mates and intones "I know the value of a kindly chorus" he is taking the connventions of musical comedy to the cleaners. There is no layer of irony that can be laid on that, and Art o Briain is sensible enough to let it sing for itself.
And when Sir Joseph Porter, epicene monarch of the sea among his bevy of simpering females, asserts: "I snap my fingers when the whirl-wind taunts" and is answered "And so do his sisters and his 'cousins and his aunts" we are in a region of high Victorian comedy that is matched only by Boucicault at his subtlest, and bettered only by Wilde. Which brings one to the core of Gilbert's much misunderstood genius.
Like Wilde, Gilbert took a subverrsive line with the comic form itself. It is notorious that the romantic comedy since Menander works to a simple, ludicrous and incorrigibly comforting formula. Someone loves "a lass above his station". Society in the form of parents, uncles, military or naval authoority, impedes the match, thwarts the course of young love. The audience yearns to see the lovers united, agoonises as to how it can be brought abouL
Then, out of the blue, or the flies, comes the solution. The lover is disscovered, by means of a mole under his oxter, to be nobly born. The blocking characters back off, society shudders into a posture of welcome and beneediction: "0 joy, 0 rapture unforeseenj For now the skies are all serene, etc." Wilde and Gilbert had a ball with this formula. In The Importance of Being Ernest a hand-bag, a temperance beverage and a three-volume novel provide the fulcrum of a plot that should, if there were any justice, have finished the romantic comedy plot for all time.
Gilbert went several better: in The Gondoliers a tipsy Venetian mixes up two babies so that when one of them is called to rule Barataria they cannot be distinguished, so must rule jointly; in The Pirates a certain Ruth - "the remains of a fine woman" - mistakes the word "pilot" for "pirate" and sends Frederick into nefarious appprenticeship in Pinafore. Butterfly `deliciously impersonated by Anita Reeves - had practised "babying" so clumsily that she had connfused the proleptic Captain with the fore-mast hand. You can't "send up" a plot like that; it will meet itself coming down.
So what about the theme, the satire? Here I find myself even more at odds with Mr O'Toole - he is the most thoughtful of our critics and I hope that he will take my attack as a compliment.
He hears the two songs 'A British Tar is a Soaring Soul' and 'He is an Englishman' as reflecting "national pride and spurious unity" similar to the mood recently engendered by the Falklands War. Nothing could be furrther from the fact. Both songs are deeply subversive. When Alan Rice as the Boatswain delivered 'Englishhman' on the night I felt he conveyed the true irony of the piece, a patent mockery of national pride. "For he himself has said itjAnd its greatly to his creditjThat he is an Englishman." The whole point is that the poor basstard has had no say in the matter:
"For he might have been a Roosianj A French or Turk or ProosianjOr perhaps Ital-ian." He might indeed. Gilbert was a satirical Scot and he twisted the tail of the imperial lion as zestfully as Wilde or Shaw.
So what do you do with Gilbert and Sullivan "in a modern context"? For my money, if you want to know, go to the Gaiety. What you do is get a lively and pugnacious band led by Earl Gill - the percussion was pullsating on the night - you assemble an ensemble that can dance, sing, act and turn cartwheels; and you presssgang a corp of principals who can do all of these things even better. You throw out all the stilted business that the D 'Oyly Carte had accumulated over the decades, loosen the joints of action and release the wit and melody. There are some jokes that have dated and these must go. But the core of comic drama is universal, and indesstructably so. That is why Chesterton wrote of Gilbert: "It may be that in the remote future that laughter will still be heard, when all the voices of that age are silent."
Pearson's Pinafore is a triumph beecause it trusts its text and score. There is no attempt to wrench the drama into some phoney contemporary shape. But within that pattern ample room has been made for a few really elegant performances. John Kavanagh's 'porttrayal of Dick Deadeye gets rid of the traditional "triangular" creep and prooduces a modern man of almost Fallstaffian cynicism - disgustingly in the know, sardonic, serpentine in his writhings, impeccable of voice, odoriiferous to the degree that there was an agitation of lady's fans in the boxes every time he approached the foottlights.
Alan Devlin brought anew, and welcome, dimension of camp ness to Sir Joseph Porter, his hands fluttering excitedly between pinafore and belllbottom while his voice kept faultless time. Deference to men at the office and the surfeit of females at home could hardly have shaped him otherrwise. Captain Corcoran was manly and decent, handsome, harmonious and funny. When he conspired with the captivating Carolann Lowe and Mr Devlin to "ring the merry bells" it was gratuitous cruelty to refuse the encore so loudly demanded by the audience. This will not be forgiven. As for Miss Reeves, she was beyond praise.
Noel Pearson has a winner here.
He can take it anywhere. The secret of its success is its elaborate simplicity. Every kind of theatrical outrage is perrpetrated by director and designer Xstrange boxes and kiosks are lowered onto the deck to deliver an actor, muscular tars arrive on ropes and pulleys from god knows where. Yet the tempo never falters, the dialogue is never blurred, the voices are bellllike in their clarity, the plot bounces its way rhythmically towards its long foregone conclusion, and the sharp edge of its wit cuts as clean as ever. So give three cheers ....