Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 14, 2019
Book: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Katherine Allen, Gavin Brown, Thomas Campbell, Jermaine Chau, Tobias Cole, Sean Hall, Bobbie Jean Henning, Dominic Lui, Rory O’Keeffe, Billie Palin, Zach Selmes
Images by Phil Erbacher
It is all aboard the love boat in Gilbert & Sullivan’s 141-year-old operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. On the naval vessel, we find romances that transcend the English class system, as well as classic tropes of mistaken identities, and raucous sailor buffoonery of the guileless variety. The songs remain delightful, but its narrative is predictably outdated. Under Kate Gaul’s direction however, much of the show is made new again, by her resolute queering of how the story is told.
Genderfucking is the order of the day in this interpretation of H.M.S. Pinafore. A doggedly heterosexual world is radically transformed into something much less binary, where we no longer have to care what’s between the legs, as long as we understand that the heart wants, what the heart wants. With extravagant makeup design by Rachel Dal Santo, uniformly applied on all members of cast, everyone becomes sexually ambiguous. We are born naked and the rest is drag, as the saying goes, and the production is all the better for it. A modern sensibility permeates all of the show, that has suddenly turned refreshing and quite entrancing. Its humour is rejuvenated, featuring a roster of performers that are all very keen, very able and impressively comical in their embrace of a newly mandated approach of subversiveness.
Soprano Katherine Allen sings beautifully the part of Josephine, and brings a confident exuberance that transforms her damsel in distress character, into something much more likeable. Her beau Ralph is given irresistible charm by Billie Palin, who adds to her performance of masculinity, a renewed sense of dimension and meaning. Thomas Campbell is unforgettable as a hirsute version of Little Buttercup, with exaggerated gestures conveying an overt femininity for his role, using the art of drag to expose the absurdity of our obsession with gendered behaviour. Tobias Cole and Rory O’Keefe play Capt. Corcoran and Sir Jospeh Porter respectively, for persuasively funny depictions of powerful men, both creative in their camp renderings of otherwise hackneyed archetypes.
Music director Zara Stanton’s arrangements are highly inventive, incorporating a small number of instruments performed on stage by the ensemble, although a lack of percussion and bass does detract slightly from the rowdy mood. Nate Edmondson’s sound design delivers some of the biggest and most unexpected laughs of the production. Choreography by Ash Bee adds to the humour of the piece, although the movement of bodies can seem insufficiently robust at certain points. Melanie Lertz does wonderfully as production designer, for costumes and a set that are whimsical, joyful, and satisfyingly vivid. Fausto Brusamolino’s dynamic lights too are similarly pleasing, memorable for an air of romantic sophistication that they manufacture.
Affairs on the ship are kept underground, because of violations to conventions of class and hierarchy. On the stage, however, it is precisely these violations that we indulge in, so it only makes sense that notions of normalcy are required to go through a process of subversion, in order that we may enjoy H.M.S. Pinafore‘s underlying criticism of our hypocrisy. For centuries, we have thought of romantic love as splendid and almighty, yet societies everywhere have kept it a privilege only for those who fit the straight and narrow. What were once despicable perverts now take centre stage, as we learn to broaden every definition of who we are.