The choice of Mike Leigh to direct the latest revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates Of Penzance (currently showing at the English National Opera) is both logical and baffling. On the one hand, Leigh lived and breathed the pair’s work before and while making his Oscar-winning film Topsy-Turvy and he’s the current president of both the Gilbert Society and the Sullivan Society.
On the other hand, he is famously averse to using pre-existing scripts and his works are usually concerned with the nitty gritty of modern life. At the time of Topsy-Turvy, he poo-pooed the very idea of what he is doing now saying, “I really have no interest in directing such things because they don’t really come up under what really motivates me, which is depicting the real world, and whatever these comic operas do, they don’t do that”.
Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and its Little List, Pirates’s topicality is not so obvious. The character of the Major General is believed to be based upon that of the real life soldier Garnet Wolseley, who held that rank when work began in earnest on Pirates. In contrast to the fortunes of the musical pair, his career reached a zenith in 1895, a time when the two composers were on the verge of splitting up. As well as plying his trade across four continents, Garnet contributed to the English language with the phrase “everything’s all Sir Garnet”, meaning “all is in order”.
There are a few standouts from the performers. As Frederic, Robert Murray is something of a black hole, drawing in the spotlight and attention yet rarely giving anything of value in return. His lack of stage charisma is more than made up for by Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Andrew Shore as the Major General. The former plays his role as less Jack Sparrow and more Captain Hook, eschewing mincing menace for some chucklesome panto flair. Shore was born to play this part and takes it on with gusto and what scraps of nuance the script affords; he is one of the few to score highly in the drama, comedy and singing stakes. Claudia Boyle has tight vocal control and is a worthy Mabel. Rebecca De Pont Davies convincingly portrays the underlying pathos of Ruth’s situation, one of the production’s few dark moments.
Operettas are often looked down upon by more serious opera fans; even the name of the genre smacks of condescension. Pirates is a jolly farce in anyone’s book and, while it lacks the broad emotional sweep of “proper” opera, it is just as entertaining. There is plenty here for the eyes and ears to feast on and, in its uplifting nature, far more to be genuinely happy about. Leigh’s take is, as could be expected, a visually flamboyant affair that keeps its feet on the ground. His direction is sprightly and deferential to his heroes’ work, adding smart touches to the movement of the characters while sticking like glue to the original script.
Still, Leigh’s Pirates is musically largely by-the-numbers and as faithful as an ugly husband. This may not reach the heights of other ENO offerings this year but everything is certainly all Sir Garnet.
The Pirates of Penzance is at the London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2 until 4 July. Tickets £12-£115. The Pirates of Penzance will be broadcast to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 19 May. For further details visit the ENO screen website.