Gilbert & Sullivan have been pooh-poohed and derided for too long; for far, far too long, they have been ill-served by substandard productions.
So says William Relton, artistic director of Tarantara Productions who bring their Gala Celebration of Gilbert & Sullivan to Chichester Festival Theatre on January 25.
Alistair McGowan presents a special one-off concert. He will be joined by soloists including Rebecca Bottone, Barry Clark and Yvonne Howard while BBC Radio 3’s Martin Handley will conduct a 26-piece orchestra.
And that’s the crucial thing, William feels: the size of that orchestra.
“Doing Gilbert & Sullivan properly means doing it with an orchestra the size that Sullivan orchestrated it for. Almost all productions these days do it with far, far fewer. Economics come into it, of course, but if you don’t do it with the right numbers, then you are undermining it. You lose something very important, and we would not be doing it if we couldn’t with the right size. Nobody would think of doing Mozart with an eight or 12-piece orchestra, or maybe they would! But I think you can go only so far with cutting and cutting. I think you have got to be able to say that if I am going to have to cut it any further, then I am not going to do it.
“You can take any radical approach you like, and I would wish it the best of luck, but when you are just shaving and shaving and shaving it in order to put the show on, then I really don’t think that works.”
This latest Chichester date for William and the company represents the latest chapter in a close association with Chichester Festival Theatre.
“When we were in 2014, the theatre asked us to do a special public gala before the reopening of the refurbished theatre. We were frightfully flattered to be asked, and it went down very well. We have been back twice with semi-staged productions, and now for this year they have asked us to come back with an expanded version of what we did in 2014.
“If it is done properly, Gilbert & Sullivan has a level of sophistication which is very rare in operetta. You find a lot of the jokes in operetta, because they tend to be central European, tend to be very heavy and very laboured. Nobody could ever accuse W S Gilbert of being heavy or laboured.”
And you then get that sophistication combined with Sullivan’s music.
“They have been pooh-poohed and derided for so long because of substandard performances, and because of D’Oyly Carte always putting Gilbert & Sullivan in aspic for so long. But the point is that it is all much too valuable to be dismissed. They are much too clever and deserving of attention.
“When I approach a semi-staging, for example, I just present them as if I was doing it for the first time. I must have directed Figaro three or four times now. Each time I pick it up, I think to myself ‘I don’t know this. What is interesting here? What touches me?’ If you come from a performing background and decide that you absolutely have got to do it this way because that was the way my granny liked it, then that is the death of anything in the performing arts. If you are doing something a certain way because of tradition, then a certain number of people will like it, but you are not moving forward.”
As for the content, you might just find G&S a little surprising, William suggests: “When I was thinking about HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe for our semi-stagings, you would not say it is socialist, but they obviously speak up for the rights of the common man.
“It is extraordinary. It is not what you would expect of commercial Victorian theatre. They have a sense that the ordinary working man is very important and has a very valuable place in society and should be respected for what he does.”
Tickets from the CFT.