When the words ‘student production’ are mentioned one’s mind immediately turns to torturous school productions with teenagers press-ganged into playing parts they patently do not care for. This student production, however, defies any such stereotype; it is an extremely professional production and, more importantly, tremendous fun to watch.
Like all Gilbert and Sullivan productions, Princess Ida forms comes from the English Light Opera tradition. During the early nineteenth century, the London theatre scene was inundated with gregarious, low-brow musicals, as we might call them. These shows were somewhat risqué and led to a definite lack of interest from the general public. The fortunes of English theatre were saved, in the late nineteenth century, by one of the great entertainment partnerships in history: that of W.S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan, the composer, who scored terrifically joyous music and Gilbert, a King’s alumni, the librettist, whose comic touch and one-liners remain hilarious more than a century on. Their comic operas with memorable songs, witty dialogue and absurd plotlines engendered a more family-friendly environment, which led to a revival of England’s musical scene.
Were Gilbert and Sullivan to see the KCL Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of Princess Ida they would, no doubt, have been tears at the end of it because of the sheer hilarity. Like so many Gilbert and Sullivan operas, if one were to read the libretto of Princess Ida, it would be an amusing read in itself, but it is the performance that makes it side-splittingly funny. The plot revolves around an effete Prince, young Hilarion (played superbly by Oliver McDonnell), whose betrothed, the titular Princess Ida (once again, played to perfection by Maria Zicos), is reticent to marry him and has decided to set up a women’s only university instead. Daniel Atherton gives an extraordinarily funny performance as the college’s Professor of Abstract Science. Prince Hilarion and his two friends, the exuberant Cyril and more subdued Florian (played par excellence by Natalie Reeve and John Cullen-Kennedy, respectively) must infiltrate the college in disguise as women.
The women’s only college seems a dated concept to us, but during the period it was written the idea of higher education for women was in its genesis. The first women’s only college had been established at Cambridge a decade earlier and Westfield College, the first women’s-only college at the University of London, was set up a mere two years before the first performance of Princess Ida in 1884. However, the women’s only college in the opera is part of the antiquated representation of gender roles found in Princess Ida. The KCL Gilbert and Sullivan Society, though, has come up with an innovative feminist take on the opera without removing any of the humour. The most obvious change is that of King Hildebrand to Queen Hildebrand, though the militaristic streak essential to the character is not lost and explored superbly by Chloe Phillips-Bartlett. The sons of King Gama who are traditionally portrayed with a barbaric militarism are seen here snivelling cowards with the only ‘real soldier’, Prince Arac, being played by a woman (Claudia Chapman shines in this role). When the scene in which Hilarion and his friends battle the sons of King Gama the excessive masculinity of even Prince Arac is destroyed by the fact he’s wearing sequinned, purple top under his armour.
This production by the KCL Gilbert and Sullivan Society delights and surprises its audience with a feminist take on Gilbert and Sullivan opera. It succeeds in the difficult task of modernising Princess Ida without ruining the comedic effect. The highest praise I can give is that on the train home I was, much to the concern of my fellow passengers, singing ‘P'raps if you Address the Lady’ from the finale of first act.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor
Feb 20 - Feb 22
Greenwood Theatre, London, SE1 3RA