Iolanthe (Queensland Conservatorium)
Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
September 10 – 17
“Iolanthe” (pronounced “I Oh Lon Thee) represents the seventh collaboration from the ever-popular dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The fantastical satire is a comic opera, but not really an opera at all, so silly is its story about fairies marrying mortals. Its essential light-weightiness makes it an accessible show in and of itself, however, in the hands of Griffith University, Queensland Conservatorium. This is amplified by set and costume designer SimoneRomaniuk’s aesthetic interpretation. Like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on acid, it is all hyper colour and moment with even its own passionate and powerful Queen of the Fairies (Alla Yarosh).
It’s an inventive production from its outset with its combination of Lois Redman’s whimsical choreography of dab and floss dance moves and an effective stage design of streamers hanging from the ceiling and then striped maypoles. And the emergence from amongst its splendour of the show’s large chorus of colourfully-costumed fairies tripping hither, tripping thither, makes its early scenes quite wonderful to watch. Early highlights keep coming with noisy arrival from the rear of the Conservatorium Theatre stalls of the peers of the realm, whose number on stage, full of sweeping regal capes and crowns, only adds to the spectacle. It’s all very British, (Act Two is all England with Big Ben, Beefeaters and Union Jack adornment), as the Queen of the Fairies meets Britain’s legal establishment.
The story is literally set in two worlds, that of the fairies and the moral world as it focusses on the trials and tribulations of Acradian Shepherd Strephon (Oliver Heuzenroeder), who is half fairy and half mortal. His mother, the charming fairy Iolanthe (Sophie Mortesen), who has been banished from fairyland for marrying a mortal, has been pardoned for her crime so is reunited with the fairies, allowing her to introduce them to Strephon, who intends to marry his love Phyllis (Caitlin Weal), who is a Ward of Chancery and not yet of legal marrying age, thereby requiring permission from the Lord Chancellor (Aidan Hodder) to marry. The British House of Lords is included as the entire peerage along with the Lord Chancellor is besotted with Phyllis. As if this is not enough of a complication, when Strephon is caught in intimate conversation with his fairy mother, who appears younger than he does himself, the stage is set for a hilarious confrontation between characters, especially as it is a capital crime for fairies to marry mortals.
Like its story, some of the operetta’s musical numbers are absurdist with nonsensical lyrics akin to those of the duo’s “Tarantara, Tarantara” ‘With Cat-Like Tread” sort from “The Pirates of Penzance”. But, warmly conducted by Johannes Fritzsch’s, the orchestra provides a lovely lushness to much of the score, including a beautiful, subdued overture and a flighty fluidity to the fairy’s music. Complex orchestrations sparkle its silliness, boldly bringing to life even a song about the merits of being adept and spelling and grammar.
Heuzenroeder is strong as the romantic lead, Stepheon, while Weal presents a modern Phyllis and is of crisp vocals throughout. They are joined by Hodder in provision of opening night’s standout performances. His presentation of the Chancellor’s Act Two patter number, ‘The Nightmare Song’, inset with almost conversational asides as he outlines how hopeless love is the stuff of nightmares, robbing him of his rest, is very entertaining. Not only does his comic approach shine, but it is appropriately tempered to underline the song’s cumbersome lyrics upon a steady base.
Sound is always crips and Keith Clark’s lighting design both lushes us into the velvety night of ‘The Nightmare Song’ and easily contrasts the fanciful fairy world with that of the more orderly human one, which helps in transition from the hyperreal into pantomime. This works well with Stuart Maunder’s generous direction, which allows the work to lean into its witty comedy, setting a clear tone and attention to detail from the start.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” has long delighted audiences with its clever combination of romance, humour and political lampoonery and it is easy to see why. Despite having premiered over a century ago in 1882, its satire of the legal system and its aristocratic privilege, still resonates. Not only is its story easy enough to follow, but it is vibrant riot of colour, fun, and impressive stagecraft ensure that is well received by opening night audiences of all ages.