I’ve never been a fan of the theatre laugh – the polite one audiences do when they know there’s a funny bit they should acknowledge. What I go for is the genuine belly laugh – the sort you can’t control that leaves you banging your head on the seat in front. When English National Opera invited me to direct a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, I knew I wanted a production that was silly, joyful and – despite their association with Victoriana – still relevant.
I was only familiar with one or two of G&S’s operettas, so I set about reading and listening to all of them during a summer in Bagnols-en-Forêt. Perhaps it was the southern French countryside that put the idea of a fairy glade in my mind, but Iolanthe leapt out at me. I think it appealed to my sense of humour. It tells the story of Strephon, the son of a fairy, who is in love with Phyllis, a ward of court. Unfortunately, the Lord Chancellor and the entire House of Lords also have their eyes on Phyllis.
It is gloriously camp and sharply satirical. There are the usual G&S themes of first love, battling suitors, impotent Englishmen and – typical of many comedies of the period – there is an older man of high status, in this case the Lord Chancellor, chasing a maiden. We are playing this part of the storyline without lechery. Old men can be foolishly romantic – our Lord Chancellor is no exception. In fact, all the men in the show are tenderhearted rather than carnal. It is the women who are libidinous.
I have been asked many times whether, given our heightened political climate, I will update the libretto. My answer is no. Iolanthe has no particular comment on where we are now, but perhaps it can remind us where we have come from. Women in G&S are often idealised, virtuous ornaments, but they are by no means obedient or passive. The highest ranking character in Iolanthe is not the Lord Chancellor but the Fairy Queen, a thinly disguised lampoon of Queen Victoria. Her band of fairies are far feistier than the men and have the upper hand throughout.
WS Gilbert was a brilliant satirist, and the barbs in Iolanthe are razor sharp. Witness one Guardsman: “When in that House MPs divide / If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too / They’ve got to leave that brain outside / And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.” Or Lord Mountararat’s song celebrating Britain’s military glory: “When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte / As every child can tell / The House of Peers throughout the war / Did nothing in particular / And did it very well.”
What astonished me was how current the issues are. So I let the satire speak for itself, resisting the temptation to mention Brexit, duck houses, freemasonry or any other present-day preoccupations. The original material will be enjoyed all the more for the longevity of its relevance and its traditional, period-accurate setting affords more opportunities for comedy – British audiences will notice how little the peers’ costumes have changed in the last 135 years.
While much of the material is still extremely funny, tastes in humour have changed. I pared down the script here and there purely because dialogue can get lost in the huge auditorium of the Coliseum. The Victorians loved puns. There’s a play on words in act two about the Pickfords Removal Company that I would have removed had Pickfords not still been in business.
I drafted in my colleague Toby Davies to help write extra gags. These are strictly in the spirit of the piece, although some are a little saucier than would have been acceptable when the show first opened at the Savoy theatre in 1882 – the first show in the world to have electric light. I do think the piece deserves to be as fruity as we can possibly make it, because it’s a silly piece of theatre that should work for comedy-hungry audiences today.
There is a certain conflict of interest in comedic operas. Beautiful music needs room to breathe without accompanying tomfoolery or raucous laughter. I may be criticised for encroaching on this space too often, as the show is packed with mischief, but I hope I’ve been sensitive to the spirit of the piece. Our conductor, Timothy Henty, has gone back to Sullivan’s original score – acquired by the British Library in 2015 – to get as close as possible to what was actually wanted. In one rather busy duet involving sheep, he and I planned out where the laughs could be without ruining some of the best bits of singing.
People in the opera world often say that whatever you do to a G&S some people are going to hate it. My producer is a little concerned at some of the things I’ve got up my sleeve. I think there will be a few surprised faces in the audience, and one or two raised eyebrows, but I hope that even the most pedantic G&S fan will be happy. I would love to hear people say: “I never knew opera could be this funny.”
• Iolanthe is at the Coliseum, London, until 7 April. Box office: 020-7845 9300.