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HMS Pinafore Hayes Theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Supplied

HMS Pinafore sets sail with a message of hope this Sydney Festival

Director Kate Gaul reckons the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera will have your sea legs rolling in the aisles

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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The one thing you don’t do when adapting Victorian-era theatrical darlings Gilbert and Sullivan is to try and out-camp them, suggests director Kate Gaul. She’s about to raise anchor on an encore voyage of her successful Hayes Theatre run of the high seas comic opera HMS Pinafore at the Riverside Theatres in Paramatta this Sydney Festival 2021 in January.

“I don’t think you can reach the levels of campness that are already written into it, believe me,” she says. “Honestly, they must have been rolling around the floor laughing as they were writing the stuff. I think the reason that we’re successful is that we sort of play it pretty straight, in the sense that we don’t parody the parody.”

Gaul deploys a time-honoured theatrical tradition to gender-swap two of the roles, in Billie Palin’s salty sailor Ralph Rackstraw and Thomas Campbell’s rosy-cheeked harbour salesperson  Little Buttercup. “Now, that has implications for the music, but we don’t draw your attention to it,” Gaul says of the subtle queering these swaps enact on the text penned in 1878, with Buttercup falling for Captain Corcoran (Tobias Cole) and Ralph for his daughter Josephine (Hannah Greenshields). “The audience make their own conclusions about two women in love there, and two men here.”

Gaul thinks that winning marriage equality in Australia lends an extra bit of love to this casting flourish in a story that already has a lot of fun poking at class differences. “The production has far deeper resonances around the notion that love is love,” she suggests, “because the driver of the plot, if you like, is if we’re in love, aren’t we equal?”

One thing’s for certain, it’s a whole lotta silly good fun. “If somebody wrote something like this now, the dramaturg would send it back and go, ‘it’s implausible. No one will believe this’,” Gaul chuckles. “At its very core, it’s exceptionally good music and it has fabulous lyrics and great themes, about obsession with social status and personal politics. Today we could do a whole opera about Instagram.”

“Obviously it’s a tiny chamber version compared to what you might get in an opera house… But it feels much fuller than that.”

While HMS Pinafore has enjoyed lavish stagings with expansive casts, closer to the opera end of the scale, Gaul’s cast of 12 play it rough and ready. “Gilbert and Sullivan wanted to bring a truthful edge to everything,” she says. “They didn’t want it to be perfect. They just wanted to bring something distinctive to the stage. So again, spinning that out, we’ve brought back that irreverence, being a bit rough around the edges.”

They’re a hard-working bunch, with many of the cast adding playing instruments to their all-dancing duties. “So it’s obviously a tiny chamber version compared to what you might get in an opera house… But it feels much fuller than that,” Gaul adds. “We keep it moving.”

While she doesn’t describe herself as an aficionado, Gaul grew up in Hobart where the Gilbert and Sullivan Society were major amateur players, and their works kind of seeped into her bones in the audience. Later, while working as an usher at the State Theatre after moving to Sydney, she saw a disco version of HMS Pinafore by Essgee productions. “It’s something that’s been with me for many years, I guess.”

This latest take might be small, but it’s perfectly formed, replete with decidedly queer flag dancing and a marvellous costume change when the grog breaks out at a key moment. “All the sailors come out in as if they’re going to a mad party somewhere on Oxford Street, or in a Fellini film, and it’s great. I mean, the sailor costume is camp to start with, but I like design that really transforms, and you have to find a way to justify that.”

Gilbert and Sullivan diehards are likely to approve of how she pulls that move off, and all but the hard-hearted are likely to lap up this saucy sea crossing. “Nobody could have predicted the darkness that we’ve been through,” Gaul nods to the Great Lockdown. “So hopefully this production sends a message of hope to anybody who feels lost at sea. It’s so joyful.”

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