The Yeomen of the Guard

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

Production photo

This remains an oddity among the G&S canon, their only joint work which lacks a happy ending and where both musical and dramatic structures have some pretension towards the status of opera rather than operetta. Indeed, its 1888 date puts it within the same period as Sullivan’s highly successful, serious and non-Gilbertian opera Ivanhoe (1891) so it shouldn’t surprise that Yeoman’s tale of treachery, honour and love in the context of an imagined version of 16th century Merrie England has more than a touch of Sir Walter Scott about it (Indeed, isn’t merrymaid Elsie just Scott’s Glee-maiden, a decorative and vulnerable girl who suits a Victorian audience by being good in a profession where she should conventionally have gone to the bad?).

This makes it rather more difficult to present to a modern audience – waspish wit is more our taste than something bordering on real sentiment, or even sentimentality. This new production wisely puts an edge on what might be mawkish by making it rather nasty – it’s tense when the London crowd reach out to maul Elsie, the Yeomen of the Guard can suggest a threat as much as a defence, and the entertainment provided by the travelling players verges on the vulgar.

It’s not all good clean fun at the Tower, which moves the centre of attention somewhat from the preposterous plot whereby brave Colonel Fairfax (Darren Fox), the gentleman alchemist with treacherous relations, simply shaves his beard to emerge unrecognisable as Leonard Meryll, son of the Sergeant of the Guard and himself a fresh-faced Yeoman (why did I find myself thinking of Blackadder at this point?).

Instead the meat of the drama becomes a rather unfamiliar Jack Point, in the form of Barry Clark, who is certainly not the wiry little cap-and-bells jester once expected. His is a bulky Mr Punch of an entertainer, verging on the sour and well aware that he’s slipped to the bottom of the heap. When he says that he was whipped and put in the stocks, it certainly isn’t a joke, and when he plays to the main chance by effectively selling his partner Elsie into a brief sham marriage, it’s because he weighs the opportunity against her feelings and knows which means most to him. As his make-up got paler for the last scene, I couldn’t avoid the shadow of Pagliacci or even Rigoletto, and didn’t really want to.

It’s a compliment to say that this probably wasn’t a Jack Point the Victorians would have warmed to – it’s a role full of pathos which Clark almost entirely ignored in favour of a less attractive realism that paid G&S the ultimate compliment of taking them entirely at their word and allowing them to have written at least one character of full operatic status.

In keeping, the design here looked more realistic than usual, with a chorus whose costumes showed references trawled from across the range of northern European 16th century art (some nice Holbein touches) and then interpreted in a suitably muted, unglamorised fashion that for once looked like something really worn. Come to think of it, the chorus is the key to how seriously Yeomen was conceived – it must be the only G&S where the grand finale doesn’t consist of a row of decorative young ladies falling into the suitably betrothed embrace of their male counterparts.

The casting of Henry Newman as Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor Wilfred Shadbolt was somewhat against type – I’ve seen him played as a dim, lumbering heavy, but here the singer turned his slighter build to some advantage by interpreting him as a creep who the flirtatious Phoebe certainly wouldn’t want fawning over her.

Jack and Wilfred worked particularly well, visually as much as vocally, in their scenes together. Indeed, Yeomen is distinguished by its duets, trios and quartets, with the fine interweavings of Strange Adventure particularly well-presented here. Jill Pert as the doughty Dame Carruthers also came to the fore in the splendidly sonorous paean of praise to the Tower, When our Gallant Norman Foes, and came as close as Gilbert permits to presenting us with a believable version of his scary-older-woman stereotype.

Alas, as though the machinations of a merrymaid married to a condemned nobleman weren’t enough, the plot has to force Phoebe and her father into marriage with (respectively) Wilfred and Dame Carruthers, both of whom are deemed physically repulsive by their prospective partners – and this after Phoebe has spent most of the drama encouraged to pet and flirt with the man supposed to be her brother – Gilbert really did have a strange view of human relations. But I’d forgive it all for Jack Point’s final anguished cry when he realises he’s wished away his last prize, especially when it’s personified by the harsh bitterness this production allows.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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