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#181 Iolanthe at Wilton’s Music Hall

April 4, 2011

By Broadwaygal at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

"Step to me and get SLAPPED, my Lord." Alice Barnett in the original production of Iolanthe. The current Iolanthe's Fairy Queen is built along similar lines. But is actually a fella.

Given the current news, you might think that moaning about the House of Lords being a bit behind the times is a modern concern. As if! WS Gilbert pointed out the vacuous pomposity of the Upper House in song, about 130 years ago, in the comic opera Iolanthe. With fairies. To the faces of watching Peers, no less. And they laughed along, like the paté-brained mooncalves they were.

Iolanthe is probably the slap-me-with-a-haddock silliest of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas – and that’s saying something. The plot can be summed up in five words and three initials (fairies invade House of Lords, WTF), and includes the usual thwarted lovers and I-am-your-father twists you’d expect from the past-master of daft plots. Add in the fact that our half-fairy hero becomes an impossible ‘Liberal-Conservative peer’, and the lunacy even seems (a bit) politically relevant.

The version was saw, at Wilton’s Music Hall, was further absurdified by being all-male. So the battle of the sexes between the frilly lady fairies and the fusty old Lords is subverted – now, the opera ends with every Peer paired up with a muscular man-fairy on his arm.

Rather than just the purely knowing, burlesque send-up you’d immediately think this would be, the production is set out as a schoolboys’ romp: while the lonely piano thumps out the overture, we see a group of post-war schoolboys stumble on a deserted backstage set and decide to stage their own impromptu Iolanthe.

So all these cross-dressing fairies look like they’ve stolen their assorted underthings from a laundry line, and the crusty peers are bedecked in dressing gowns, chains of state made of conkers, and a fantastical selection of pilfered ‘grown-up’ hats. It’s a cute conceit that serves the bare-bones production very well. It also helped that the actors playing the fairy Iolanthe and her son’s betrothed, Phyllis, were both excellent falsetto singers*.

It was probably a wise decision not to go too kitsch and clever on what was already a pretty subversive piece of light entertainment. After all, the Victorian fascination with romantic fairy bullshit was even more universal and embarrassing than our current fascination with romantic vampire bullshit. Fairies were the ideal Victorian stage effect: although supernatural, they were slight, feminised and ineffectual. They were decorative and beguiling, and their magic was usually confined to plot-enhancing love spells. They were denatured nature figures, smacking more of the fireside than the forest. They were less religious than angels, more domestic than classical goddesses, prettier than witches… plus, of course, they fulfilled the supreme Victorian requirement of having an excuse to look at ladies without many clothes on.

John Atkinson Grimshaw [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, this kind of thing. John Atkinson Grimshaw's 'Spirit of the Night', from 1879. It's not rude if she's got wings on.

As Diane Purkiss points out in her book ‘At the Bottom of the Garden‘, Victorian stage fairies were often very young street girls who performed for pennies. They were squeezed into revealing costumes, festooned with new-fangled, scorching, un-earthed electric lights, strapped into harnesses and hoisted up above the scenery – and then when the show was over, they were kicked out the back door and told not to show their faces until the next night. (That’s showbusiness, I hear you say.)

But in the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s the fairies who win. They beguile the moronic peers, and (spoilers!) at the end, transform them into fairies like themselves. Everyone flits away to fairyland, WS Gilbert has insulted the hereditary lords of the realm, everyone’s had a great time; but of course, in the real world, the balance of power hasn’t shifted a bit. A bit like today, then…

*’Counter-tenor’ rather than falsetto, if you want to be operatic about it. (But you don’t.) Begging the question as to what a counter-tenorist branch of the Metropolitan Police would look like…

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