Perhaps Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest work, Iolanthe is a heady mixture of fairies, political satire and magnificent songs. This timeless operetta centres around a disruptive love affair and a whimsical dismantling of the English class system. Although light-hearted in appearance, this classic takes on some big and very contemporary themes. “Everyone enjoys laughing at the House Of Commons and House of Lords,” Union Theatre’s Sasha Regan tells me. ”There is nothing better in Britain than to laugh at ourselves. It’s still as relevant now as ever, with the divide between people.” In a brilliant twist (unless you were a drama geek at a same-sex school) Regan has endowed this wondrously silly tale with an all-male cast.
There’s no allusions any of the cast might be female. When rehearsals first started it was drummed into the actors that they were not playing women, but characters. “The camp-ness is all there in Gilbert & Sullivan already.” As a director, the challenge for Regan is make people abandon their gender preconceptions by the end of the performance. It’s another breath of fresh air she’s folded into a work which originally opened in 1882. The action has been adjusted slightly, to include, a party of mischievous schoolboys who’ve wander into an old theatre. Here they unearth a portal to another world, a dusty copy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe and a little bit of magic.
The show’s titular character has been evicted from the fairy realm, for the ‘heinous’ act of marrying a mortal. Later her son falls in love with a young ward of court. To compound matters, the entire House of Lords have her in their sights. When she’s led to believe her beau may have been unfaithful, the peers and fairies become at odds. By all accounts, a fairly normal day in the world of Gilbert & Sullivan. Full of social divide, entitlement and consequence, Regan’s reinvigorated Iolanthe made its debut at her Union Theatre in London in 2010. She happily admits life on the road is a breath of fresh air, even if there are a few tense moments. “It’s really strange, because you do stuff in rehearsal, with a new cast who are not really sure how it all fits together. You put them in front of an audience and there’s laughter and a reaction. You can almost see their faces going: ‘Ah! I see what’s she’s been talking about for the last three weeks – the humour and the charm of it.’ Now this next week is all about finding how to get your own laughs and get your characters come to life.” Working with an out of copyright piece has meant she’s had to further freedom to add distinct visual flourishes. Much of the furies’ choreography involves sign language, adding an extra layer to the narrative. She does insist, for all the tweaks, she’s remained respectful to the original script.
There’s no attempt to boldly drag the narrative into contemporary times. In all honestly, Gilbert & Sullivan’s core themes were not new when they wrote Iolanthe – and will likely resonate in British life for years to come. At least until sweeping constitutional reform takes place, or cultural barriers truly tumble. But, having such an athletic cast has thrust a new dynamism into this thoroughly modern and inventive version. While some other productions have appeared a little laden, youth and a new approach has made a much-loved classic exciting and bold. “It is a massive challenge. They’re dripping wet by the time they finish the show. They’re worked their socks off. I just sit in the stalls and enjoy watching it.”
Iolanthe comes to Theatre Royal Brighton on Tues 19 – Sat 23 June.