Interview: Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s H.M.S. Pinafore

Gilbert & Sullivan’s works are renowned as some of the most popular comic operas around, so much so that here at UoN, we have a society dedicated to them! Impact Arts interviewed Ruby Hawley, the director of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s newest production, and got the inside gossip on H.M.S. Pinafore.

After last year’s The Pirates of Penzance, what made you choose H.M.S. Pinafore as this year’s production?

H.M.S. Pinafore is another of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous ‘big three’ operettas, and has the comedic tone and well-known music that modern audiences tend to prefer. It was suggested by our Musical Director, Tim, and we voted for it as a society before I applied to be Director, but I already knew it had all the features we needed, including some strong female characters and moments of great comic potential.

So, without giving away too many spoilers, what is the show about?

Broadly speaking, it’s a romantic comedy, that also satirises the class boundaries of the Victorian period. It’s set on a Navy ship docked in Portsmouth in 1878, where a lowly sailor pines for his Captain’s beautiful daughter, but can’t marry her because she is engaged against her will to the old and eccentric First Lord of the Admiralty. Meanwhile, a local tradeswoman has her heart set on the Captain himself. It features some hilarious comedic sequences, but also some beautiful operatic moments, and as usual for Gilbert it features an amusing twist as part of the resolution!

Presumably directing an opera can be a lot more difficult than directing a play – have you found the process challenging?

Absolutely; it’s one of the hardest but hopefully most rewarding things I’ve done. It’s the first time I’ve directed a large scale show, and opera does pose particular challenges. The technical difficulty of the singing (which luckily is dealt with by the Musical Director) means the cast only have half as much time to focus on acting and dance, but the results have to be just as high quality! As director I need to help the cast to convey a very complex plot in a historical setting, including some new words and trying to coach some of them in a Portsmouth accent which I can’t do myself!

Despite its continuing popularity, it is hard to believe that H.M.S. Pinafore first opened in the late 1800’s! Have you had to update the production at all, or do you think it still remains relevant today? 

The theme of love across social boundaries is in some ways quite a modern idea, as the class boundaries in this case could be seen as an allegory for wider equality in our times. I’ve chosen to mostly reproduce the play in its period context, which does mean addressing issues such as the patriarchal tone of the show; for example, I increased the significance of one of the three female roles by restoring manuscript dialogue that was cut from the original performances because one singer refused to perform spoken words. I’ve also added several jokes of course, and a mystery song from another well-loved GnS classic!

Gilbert and Sullivan are operatic heavyweights, and their works full of brilliant moments, but what is your favourite part of the production, and why?

The comic interaction between the secondary romantic couple, the ship’s Captain and the lowly local tradeswoman Buttercup: they have some sparkling dialogue and hilarious duets, which I can’t contain myself from laughing at every time it’s rehearsed because our performers are so talented! Or, on a more serious note, the heroine’s aria in Act 2 is an absolutely beautiful moment of anguish and indecision.

Why should UoN students come and see H.M.S. Pinafore?

Come for an easy laugh and spectacular entertainment, and enjoy it for a cultural experience of a really accessible opera, it’s not that much of a stretch from musical theatre! We have a full orchestra who make a really epic sound, a cast of talented performers and we’d love the support of our fellow students for something we’ve been working on all year.

How would you describe H.M.S. Pinafore in three words?

Hilarious, magical, hearty!

Amy Wilcockson

H.M.S. Pinafore is running at the Nottingham High School Founder’s Hall, from Tuesday 1st to Friday 4th March. Tickets cost £8 for students and concessions, £10 for adults, and for more information and to book tickets, see here. Find the Gilbert & Sullivan Society on Facebook

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