It is often asserted that all great English comedies are about class. Iolanthe, the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, being performed by the McGill Savoy Society, is no exception. Having been banished for 25 years for her marriage to a mortal man, the fairy Iolanthe, played by Maggie Frainier, is finally released by her queen. Upon emerging from her exile, she reveals that her love had produced a child, Strephon, played by Scott Cope. Strephon is a half-man, half-fairy who violates the class divide within the mortal world of England by daring to love Phyllis (Allegra Johnson), who is under the care of the House of Lords. The Peers would much rather she marry one of them, and are willing to exert their inherited power to thwart Strephon’s best efforts. But now Strephon has his fairy mother acting on his behalf, and all kinds of mischief are about to be loosed upon the British democratic system. The story is perhaps more anarchic than fans of musical theatre may expect, and the humour more pointed. As Emma McQueen asserts in her Director’s Notes, Iolanthe is “Less Les Miserables, and more Family Guy.”
The Lords, with their pomposity, ridiculous attire, and disdain for the lower classes, prove to be as ridiculous as the fairies. The comedic highlight arrives in the second act, as two lords, played by Nathaniel Hanula-James and Didier Blach-Lafleche, engage in slavish, backhanded bargaining for the hand of Phyllis, a ward of the house. They nail both the haughtiness and the aristocratic sideburns I’d walked into the theatre hoping to see. Stefano Saykaly, as the Lord Chancellor, does a fine job moving between lordly gravitas and camp clowning.
There are times, however, when the concern of the Peers for Phyllis’ hand veers from the comic self interest – which was originally intended – into the pawing of inbred dogs, who should certainly never have been allowed to be the guardians of a minor. It stands in sharp contrast to the fresh-faced propriety that Scott Cope brings to Strephon. All of this pales when compared to the maelstrom of suppressed passion that Claire Rollans, as the spear-brandishing Queen of the Fairies, reveals in her performance.
The ever-present star of the show, however, is the orchestra, which provides faultless accompaniment (full disclosure: I have a friend in the orchestra). One of the great pleasures of theatre is to see a performance with live accompaniment. It is like turning up at the farm to see where the meat you eat comes from. Only less weird. The Savoy Society is using microphones for the first time, and it’s a welcome development, as even with amplification, the volume of the orchestra crowds the efforts of some of the singers.
In its time, Iolanthe was a searing take-down of the self interest and inefficiency of the Peers, couched in some of Gilbert and Sullivan’s finest musical arrangements and sharpest wit. In Britain, the House of Lords has since been substantially reformed. If this is a story from a different time and country, what can a Canadian audience expect to receive from a fresh rendition of this cultural artefact? Well, as assistant stage director Cameron McLeod pointed out, the Canadian parliamentary system is modelled on that of Britain. Moreover, regarding Savoy in general, he continued, “For the anglophone community here in Montreal, the Savoy Society, along with the two others in the city, connects us to our British heritage.”
As a Brit myself, my lack of previous exposure to the oeuvre of the English librettos did not keep me from finding myself reunited with a version of my home country (albeit one that existed over a century ago, and with a few anomalous Canadian accents). With exemplary orchestral accompaniment and a fantastic cast, I recommend those hoping to discover some of the British heritage residing in this city to rush to catch this unique production.