It’s no secret that English society is deeply divided by social class. In 19th-century England, the overwhelming majority of the population was born into punishing wage-slavery, while a tiny minority was born into plush administrative roles. This is the context of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, written in 1878, but staged this year by the McGill Savoy Society.
The comic opera is essentially a parody of the class system, with a vague moral overtone advocating for equality. A sailor on board a British naval ship, Ralph Rackstraw (Sam Strickland), falls in love with the captain’s daughter Josephine (Anna Bond/Allegra Johnston) – scandalous given their different social positions. Meanwhile, Josephine is engaged to a superior, Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty (Stephen Reimer). The whole affair is further complicated by the ship’s captain (Jonah Spungin), who is in love with a dockside vendor. The plot follows a predictable – but fun – series of entanglements and gags, rounded off with a cheesy happy ending.
H.M.S Pinafore is meant to be fun, and in some respects, then, the Savoy Society’s production should be praised. You laugh at the right the moments, and half-wish you were rollicking on deck with the sailors when the chorus starts to sing. In other respects though, the production is lacklustre. The ship’s deck setting is appropriate, as are the naval costumes; however, this is standard Gilbert and Sullivan kitsch, a predictable visual experience that could have used some livening-up.
Still, most of the actors pull off convincing English accents more or less appropriate to their social standing, which is impressive. In an amusing, yet biting song (sung in an upper-class drawl), Sir Joseph describes how he became an admiral through a determined lack of talent. “I thought so little, they rewarded me by making me the ruler of the queen’s navee,” he trills. This is Gilbert and Sullivan at their best: funny, while getting at a deeper social truth.
In this song, Reimer negotiates the line between silliness and satire well. He foolishly bobs up and down in time with the music while enunciating his lines clearly enough for the audience to understand the verbal humour. Indeed, this a distinction the Savoy Society navigates comfortably. Actors slow down for significant lines, but rush around in confusion during absurd plot twists – and this sense of confusion is exactly the point of H.M.S Pinafore. Gilbert and Sullivan present the class system exactly as it is: love, and who is in charge of a naval ship, are both decided by birth. By following this situation to its logical conclusion – absurdity – they make mockery of social hierarchy. That the production can feel a little punch-drunk is a credit to the opera’s writers.
However, whereas most actors manage to summon the acting, vocal, and comic skills needed in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, others fall far short of the mark. The net result is an uncomfortable performance. Strickland can sing, but his vocals are undermined by exaggerated body movements and an infatuated puppy-dog shtick that comes off as awkward instead of cute. Accordingly, the chemistry between Rackstraw and Josephine is more disconcerting than charming. In one scene, Rackstraw slithers up behind his sweetheart to wrap his arms around her; the uneasiness is palpable.
While principal characters are usually played by the most capable actors, this is not the case in the Savoy Society’s H.M.S Pinafore – it’s a production of contrasts. Some actors are flawless, others draw attention to their flaws. Among the chorus, there are some notably strong singers, but there is also a noticeable lack of cohesion. While this production has its shining moments, as a whole, it doesn’t quite come together; the timing is sometimes sloppy, the entries sometimes slow.
H.M.S Pinafore is mostly meant to make you laugh, and in this sense, the production does its job. But it’s also an opera about class divisions. The divide between actors in this production, though, isn’t social – it’s performance-quality. And instead of leaving the theatre questioning class inequality, you leave wondering whether equality amongst the performers would have made for a more enjoyable show.