The Pirates of Penzance by The Edinburgh Gilbert and Sullivan Society is fascinating. It begins with a long musical introduction characteristic of opera. Light and dainty music accompany a silhouetted pirates ship cast on the curtains–an effect that hasn’t changed since the show was first premiered (and this is at ‘The Edinburgh Gilbert and Sullivan Societies’ 2022nd production of the show!) however, for me this was part of the performance’s charm. The show’s humour is witty and trite. Whilst the comedy would not suit everyone, I found the witty jokes and wordplays hilarious. The age of the show is evident from this performance.
The show is about an apprentice pirate who is freed from his pirate gang on his 21st birthday. He then falls in love with Mabel, only to discover that he was born on a leap year and must return to the pirates to fulfil the time stipulated in the contract between them. He exposes a lie Mabel’s father told the pirates to escape capture, and now her father is in danger. Meanwhile, the police plan to capture the pirates, and it is uncertain who will win.
I struggled to accept the use of women as a comedic device. For instance, Frederic is horrible and dismissive of Ruth because she is ‘plain’. In this play, a woman’s only attribute seems to be beauty. They are constantly demeaned and portrayed as ignorant. At one point in the play, the pirates hold the women by force, and I found it troubling because whilst I believe this is meant to be comedic, this issue is not ‘light’ or funny. Whilst this issue is present in other operas, it seemed less appropriate in The Pirates of Penzance since it uses modern language and music.
Since the play premiered in 1879, misogyny would be expected. The production tries to revise this by making the lead female character, Mabel, a strong character. For instance, this production has Frederic kneel in ‘Stay, Frederic, stay’ and gives Mabel the theatrical power to instruct Frederic’s movements. Despite this, I do not think this sufficiently compensates for the misogyny deeply ingrained in the play.
I struggled to understand some parts of the plot because of unclear articulation, and occasionally there is a disconnect between the orchestral and vocalised tune. Lorna Murray’s (actress of Mabel) voice is beautiful and reaches unimaginably high octaves. Major-General Stanley also has a wonderful voice that seamlessly ambles through delightful musical phrases.
The theatrical effects match the light comedy; 2D trees sway to the sound of the music and falling metallic confetti at the end of the first half and mirror balls sending out points of light for the finale. The effects were simple and over-emphasised, so instead of demeaning the show, it added charm and light-heartedness to the production. A few jokes about the pirate king misaiming gunshots, a stuffed toy bird falling from the sky, and an actor exaggeratedly stumbling about the stage was quite funny.
The show runs from 22-26 March 2022
Image Courtesy of EDGAS Pirates of Penzance via Capital Theatres