W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan
Carl Rosa Opera
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production photo

While some of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire will permit of (and occasionally cries out for) reinterpretation, updating or remodelling as to characters and meaning, Patience is so much of its particular time and place that you pretty much have to take what you’re given – and in this case that’s good thing. It constitutes the most direct of all Gilbert’s satirical scripts, aimed squarely and openly at the Aesthetic Movement which was increasingly visible in the British art scene. Or was it? I suspect that a very notable part of that visibility was coming less from the art and literature themselves than from the innumerable comic parodies they inspired – including Patience.

It’s odd now to imagine what we would be watching had Gilbert run with his original idea (rather too racy for a Victorian audience) in which the entire girlhood of a district neglected the flower of military manhood in their passion for rival curates. Trollope set to Sullivan, perhaps? But for sheer decorative value it could never have rivalled Patience as it was finally written, wherein the self-announcing "twenty lovesick maidens" (well, twelve in this production, but who was counting?) trip musically onto the rustic scene glorious in the artistic gowns and flowing locks that second-generation Pre-Raphaelitism demands.

And quite rightly, the visual cues were all in place, with a touch of Gotch and Du Maurier thrown in to remind us that these are not mediaeval damosels but Victorian gels who have let heir hair down and gone all droopy because there’s a glamour in love-sick poetry which even one’s engagement to a member of the Dragoon Guards can’t possibly match.

Of course, it’s hardly arcane to see the limp but inspirational attitudinising of rival versifiers Bunthorne and Grosvenor, both in green velvet knee-britches and shoulder-length hair, as drawing directly on the public persona of Oscar Wilde (with a bit of Whistler, Rossetti, Swinburne and any other of those effete, decadent coves thrown in). I do wonder, though, how much of what Wilde was feared to stand for is also encoded here? Long before he was denounced for his actual homosexual behaviour, Wilde presented a focus for anxiety by breaking the codes of masculine appearance and sensibility – and by getting away with it so magnificently that he did indeed have a coterie of rapturous female admirers. Was the worry that women were starting to demand something new from their men (as Gilbert suggests when he has his Dragoon officers attempt to win back some affection by acting like Bunthorne, bless them)? Or is there already a distinct hint that chaps who act like that aren’t really for the ladies at all?

Patience avoids anything too obvious by making the besetting sin of the rival poets that of vanity – always good for a laugh, and that way the fact that Bunthorne isn’t really in love with any of the girls who throw themselves at his feet doesn’t have to raise any dificult questions of sexual preference, since he’s obviously too busy being in love with himself (with a glance towards Patience, presumably just because she’s not interested.) He offers one of the most engaging roles in G&S because he’s so openly collusive with the audience. We know he’s an Aesthetical sham, and adore our privilege, a factor that Fenton Gray played to the fullest. His Bunthorne was slender, wiry, sneaky, high-kicking and self-aware and he got that rarest of G&S accolades – a round of applause for one of his non-musical exits! (Wilde, just for the record, was a distinctly large man even before putting on the weight of his later years – it’s a tribute to Patience that we preserve a cultural image of him which is more like Bunthorne than the real thing.)

I wondered whether Bruce Graham’s somewhat rotund face and form would really do justice to equally Aesthetical rival poet Grosvenor, but the contrast worked well visually and he was in splendid, mellow voice, especially for the movingly silly duet Prithee Pretty Maiden with titular milkmaid Patience. Charlotte Page played her with the right degree of blazing good sense suitable to a girl who has only previously loved her Great Aunt (which doesn’t count)

Once again Jill Pert provided a wholly memorable account, both vocally and visually, of the Gilbertian "large unloved lady" role, in this case the enthralled Lady Jane, in an outfit that went beyond the Pre-Raphaelite to look positively Byzantine (with Japanese overtones). Like Bunthorne, she’s a winner because she speaks directly to the audience, and in the song Sad is that Woman’s Lot she actually gets to say what all those love-lorn middle-aged contraltos must be thinking– that if love is for the young and fair, then she’d better get hers as soon as possible since she’s already past her sell-by date. Gilbert has been criticised for constantly creating alluring (if rather unperformable) heroines of seventeen who have a right to love and marriage by virtue of their beauty, while showing older women almost exclusively (and certainly most memorably) as fat, ugly harridans trying to lay their hands on something from which their age and appearance should bar them forever. The older woman is inherently ridiculous – but she often gets the best songs and the most memorable characterisation. Gilbert himself was often tetchy and withdrawn, unfulfilled and aware of his own shortcomings. I wonder just how he really felt in relation to the Lady Janes his plots called up? Were they the risible enemy or an echo from his own psyche? They do, after all, usually get their man – and in Patience even a choice of men.

The final chorus, where without warning everyone eschews the Pre-Raphaelite in favour of primary colours and everyday jollity, packed its usual visual punch, though as ever I pitied a wardrobe department that has to provide a complete change of costume for the last ten minutes or so of the performance. And Bunthorne slunk away with a travelling bag and a disgruntled expression looking uncannily like the caricature which commemorated the end of Oscar Wilde’s American lecture tour – a tour that D’Oyly Carte helped promote. Patience, as this production showed, still delivers the situation-specific goods while allowing us to preen ourselves into the bargain as we realise just how much we seem to know about the cultural politics of late Victorian Britain.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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