Reviving ‘Patience’: An Interview with CESP Director Leon Berger Rufty-tufty Dragoons vs High-falutin’ Aesthetes
Walthamstow’s own Chapel End Savoy Players could not have chosen a better time to revive Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. The public appetite for the 2012 Tate Exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (now heading to Moscow via Washington DC), proves that modern audiences are not only receptive, but downright enthusiastic about exploring Pre-Raphaelitism and its legacy.
Sending up the poseurs who tried unsuccessfully to imitate the fashionable excesses of the ‘greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery’ crowd, Patience satirises the developing aestheticism of the late 1870s and early 1880s. This ‘ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical’ craze had its origins in what Robert Buchanan labelled Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Fleshly School’ of poetry, and in what was perceived as an unhealthy Pre-Raphaelite predilection for morbid, sensual and pseudo-medieval themes and motifs, or, as Patience puts it, ‘uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes’.
In this comic opera, rival poets Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor compete for the affections of Patience, a pretty local milkmaid, while a regiment of Dragoon guards vies for the attentions of the fickle ladies of the chorus. Originally opening at the Opera Comique in April 1881, the show transferred in October to the Savoy, the first theatre in Britain to be illuminated by electric light. On its opening night, 8 of the songs received an encore. Patience was a smash, running for 578 performances.
Although I know the score (so to speak), I have never had the privilege of seeing a full production, and so I was delighted to discover that Walthamstow’s own Chapel End Savoy Players are reviving Patience from 5-8 June.
Leon Berger, the director of this production, was kind enough to share his thoughts with me. While Berger does not have the option of sending Oscar Wilde on a tour to help contextualise the opera (as Richard D’Oyly Carte did in 1882), he is confident that its comedy, compelling characters and universal themes are timeless, as he reveals in the interview below:
Leon Berger directs Robert Brown (playing Archibald Grosvenor)
In comparison to some of G&S’s other works, Patience seems to be revived less often. Why do you think it is performed so seldom?
It’s a circular problem; the less it’s performed, the less it’s known, the less it will be performed.
Until 1982 the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company toured all the G&S operas in rep. This meant that not only could the public see Patience on a regular basis but that amateur companies had a version they could refer to (and even copy). Up until then Patience enjoyed pretty frequent performances on the amateur stage.
D’Oyly Carte closed that year so there’s little G&S performed professionally these days. Those shows that do get revived are reliant on Box Office sales and so companies fall back on the tried’n’trusted seat-fillers. The ‘Big Three’ are usually taken to be The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore (with possibly The Gondoliers or Iolanthe, as a close fourth). Amateur companies are just as dependent on Box Office revenue and know that, if they are going to mount one of the lesser-known operas like Patience, The Sorcerer, Ruddigore, Princess Ida and a handful of others, they’ll take quite a financial hit.
Having said that the G&S Opera Company who appear at an annual G&S Summer festival at Buxton have mounted 2 or 3 different productions of Patience over the last 20 years, and Carl Rosa Opera Company toured a professional production as recently as 2007.
What made you decide to revive this particular operetta?
Like a lot of amateur companies that specialise in G&S, Chapel End Savoy Players (CESP) rotate through the cycle of 13 performable G&S operas. They have performed Patience three times before in its 41 year history. The last time was in 1999, so I guess its time has come round again!
Have you seen it produced elsewhere, and how successful was it?
I’ve known and loved this show for nearly 40 years, and even performed in the professional Centenary production in 1981. I must have seen around 20 different productions over the years, some traditional, some updated and some re-written. When I was a teenager (in the ‘70s) it was common to update the aesthetes to the Flower Power & Hippie movement. There’s also a fairly frequently performed modern rewrite set in the world of football fandom called Patience, or a Game of Two Halves. Personally I prefer productions that retain Gilbert’s original satirical targets. I recently saw an all-male production at the Union Theatre which, although it had men in drag, played it ‘straight’ and worked really well.
Both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been proposed as models for Bunthorne. Do you think Bunthorne is a parody of any particular person?
Bunthorne is a composite. Although Rossetti was attacked, in his day, for being one of ‘The Fleshly School’ (and Gilbert calls Bunthorne ‘a Fleshly Poet’), the allusion is really to his compeer Swinburne. Gilbert has Bunthorne write a scurrilous poem (’Oh Hollow, Hollow, Hollow’) in the Swinburne manner - apparently nonsense but, on analysis, full of wild conceits and sexual imagery extolling the virtues of laxatives. Over the heads of most of the audience, I’ll be bound, but one for Gilbert to laugh about with his chums at the Savage Club. Only a few years earlier, Whistler had brought his famous libel action against Ruskin (who happened to be a close friend of Gilbert), and it’s Whistler’s distinctive hairstyle, with its startling white forelock, that provided the model for the wig worn by George Grossmith as the original Bunthorne. Add to the mix the well-known Du Maurier cartoons in Punch satirising the aesthetes (at least one of which is referred to in Patience) and Bunthorne emerges. The contemporaneous of appearance of Oscar Wilde on the scene, though not an influence on the creation of Bunthorne, did no harm in shaping the public appreciation of the character.
What is your favourite song from Patience, and why?
It has to be Bunthorne’s solo “If you’re anxious for the shine in the high Aesthetic line”. It’s the Credo for any wannabe in the aesthetic movement.
How did you go about casting for this production? What particular qualities were you looking for?
CESP has a regular team of players and likes to cast ‘in-house’ before looking elsewhere. I was brought in as an outsider and so was presented with a bunch of auditionees (2 or 3 for every part) without any prejudices or pressures. Some people were capable of playing more than one role, so it was really a question of internal balance. ‘If A accepts this part then they will work better with X, but if we cast B then they’d work better with Y and X can play another part’ … if you see what I mean!
What are the challenges of staging Patience?
Visually it has to have the right look. That’s easily taken care of in terms of costumes, wigs, make-up and scenery.
Dramatically it’s a show of contrasts. The earthy, rufty-tufty Dragoons versus the high-falutin’ aesthetes – and Patience, the dairy maid, caught in the middle.
Beneath all this comedy there are some very real emotions. It’s an opera about love and longing; everyone is hurting from the love they can’t have. “Still brooding on their mad infatuation!” sings Patience at her entrance. “What in the world IS this ‘love’ that upsets everybody?” The main challenge, as I see it, is to tap into this so it’s not just a show where everyone is laughed at and no-one is taken seriously – there are some real characters trying to make sense of their lives.
Are you in any way anxious that a modern audience unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic contexts of the piece might have trouble understanding the satire?
This can always be a problem – especially if audiences don’t read their programme notes! If our venue’s technical facilities work as hoped, I propose to use the overture to project PRB paintings onto the stage so the audience can acclimatise to the mood of the piece. Probably some of the du Maurier cartoons too, to convey the idea that, even in Victorian times, this milieu was ridiculed in some circles.
Gilbert is not so much parodying the aesthetic movement, but its poseurs and its fakes—Bunthorne isn’t lampooned because he’s aesthetic—he’s lampooned because he’s a hypocrite (he says, “Let me confess—I’m an æsthetic SHAM… , my mediaevalism’s affectation –[is]- born of a morbid love of admiration!”). In fact, like many G&S operas, most of the characters are driven by self-interest and are pretty despicable when you look at their motives.
There are hypocrites and poseurs in any age and always worthy of our derision, so I think this much will be clear in the production. Even if the subtleties of the satire are lost on the audience, the object is still to deliver a humorous show.
How much research into the literary and cultural 19th century contexts did you have to do?
Oh, I’m steeped in it. It’s one of joyous opportunities of directing that one has an excuse to research and read round the subject. I’ve been dusting off my Walter Pater from student days!
And, of course, an indulgent chance to renew my acquaintance with Leighton House, the Red House and William Morris’s House (which is not far from where the company is based).
Do you have a sense of what G&S thought of the Aesthetes? Is the satire affectionate or adversarial?
What was once a sound artistic impulse was turned into a craze in which its salient features, both of design and language, became exaggerated into ‘preciousness’. Gilbert reproduces some of the à la mode slang quite literally in Patience. “Are they not too all-but? They are indeed jolly utter”. So, yes, he’s pretty contemptuous of the movement’s hangers-on and their excesses.
Nevertheless, I reckon Gilbert was visually very much on the side of aestheticism. Look at the photos of the interiors of his homes, Harrington Gardens and Grims Dyke, with their furnishings and Morris wallpaper. He at first considered hiring George du Maurier to design the costumes, but eventually decided to do so himself, winning glowing press notices for the rapturous maidens’ flowing aesthetic gowns. Bunthorne’s entry in the Act 1 finale, be-laurelled, owes itself to Frederic Leighton’s painting ’The Daphnephoria’. Gilbert would have no issue with the products of the movement at all.
So, Gilbert’s satire is both affectionate and adversarial in turn. He himself was pretty open-minded on the philosophies of the aesthetic movement itself, and would probably agree with the Dragoons when he has them sing “True views on Mediaevalism, time alone will bring!”.
Did Gilbert and Sullivan have anything in common with the Aesthetes?
Only that they were pioneering in their own field (ie Musical Comedy). In writing the Savoy Operas together they had no other purpose than to entertain and make money. Privately they may have had altruistic motives, but these were never stated – and they certainly were not interested in attracting any followers that would have detracted from their own revenue!
Can you tell me a little bit about your own background, and how you came to work with this particular society?
I’d always acted and sung as an amateur and at school. I went to London University (Westfield College) with a view to being an academic, studying English & Drama. Three years into my PhD (on TS Eliot) my grants and scholarships ran out and I had to start supporting myself so, on a whim, I started auditioning around professionally and was given work with a small opera company, Arena Opera, then attached to Essex University; where I also cut my teeth in stage-managing, lighting, designing, painting & building scenery. One thing led to another and within 5 years I was singing principal roles with the major opera companies and, occasionally, dipping into the West End for Musicals or the provinces for the odd play. But I retained my teenage love of G&S and was grateful to be able to work with the half-dozen or so companies that sprang up after the demise of D’Oyly Carte. Parallel with this I started directing full-scale productions around 10 years ago and these days happily combine the two.
About 4 years ago I was performing at the Buxton International G&S Festival in a very obscure Sullivan operetta, The Rose of Persia, and one of the minor principals was a soprano called Jackie Mitchell. At the time she was also the Chairman of CESP. We kept in touch and, when she mentioned they might want a Director for Patience I leapt at the opportunity. I’m also pleased to say that Jackie is playing the title-role for me, and it’s quite the best, and funniest, interpretation of the part that I’ve come across!
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The Chapel End Savoy Players’ production of Patience runs from Wednesday 5 June through Saturday 8 June. You can book tickets HERE.
While visiting Walthamstow, don’t forget to pop into the William Morris Gallery, a finalist for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of Year 2013.