Princess Ida at the Finborough Theatre is the first professional production of this operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan in over twenty years. As someone not versed in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, my eyes were fresh and I found it very easy to believe that this is considered to be one of their trickiest and challenging pieces.
It opens with a slew of suitors for the titular Princess Ida, who has recently come of age to be married. Her guardian Gama, who the princess calls “father”, plans to hide her away in a university that abhors men so that when she has ‘ripened’ he can claim her as his wife. Unfortunately for him, the princess was married at 12 months to a Hungarian prince, who, with his band of single men, will storm the university castle walls to claim the women therein. The women, who have been reading philosophy, science and poetry (summarised of course!) written for the most part by men still believe their male counterparts to be merely horribly fascinating brutes. Thank goodness for love at first sight, otherwise our dear Ida may have actually followed through with her plan of hockey stick war coupled with eye-flashing and sharp words! The challenge of this play for a modern audience surely must be the sexist and predictable content with an ending that gave so many ‘happy ever afters’ that my head was reeling. No amount of iambic pentameter wordplay can justify this plot.
Positives are found in that some of the music really is very pretty, and were it to be performed out of the play’s context it would be much more palatable. However, it is very difficult to get sucked in when the character and plot are just so outrageously dated. It is not just the ladies who bear the brunt of sexism: I am sure the menfolk in the audience didn’t appreciate the portrayal of apish, lusty warriors with no character relief, just as the women are bombarded with the message of just how precious they are, despite their plucky attempt at education.
Some sterling efforts are made by the thirteen-strong cast. There are a lot of brilliant and beautiful vocals flowing; I particularly enjoyed the crystal pure tone to Lady Meg’s solo performed by Victoria Quigley. Although the guardian Gama is absolutely detestable, with an almost panto-esque bizarre character u-turn at the end, Simon Butteriss is undeniably funny and an accomplished performer. Some performers err on the over-expressive, which is slightly distracting in a 50-seat theatre; however, Georgi Mottram’s comedic expressions are brilliant as Lady Ada.
Unfortunately the Finborough feels too small for something of this scale. The audience only outnumber the cast at about four to one, and sat on the third row I felt just about far away enough, whilst genuinely fearing for the front row members when hockey sticks are thrust forth towards them in womanly vengeance. There are some nice self-aware nods to the space by pianists Richard Baker and Nick Barstow, who carry the score on two pianos very well indeed, and the use of doors and gangway work well; but despite all these tricks it feels very crowded in there.
If you are interested in Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations, want to see a rare piece of British music theatre, or have a hankering for a small room crammed with beautiful voices, give Princess Ida a look in. However, go prepared to face the play’s content head on, as even Sleeping Beauty herself would bat an eyelid at these male and female depictions.
Princess Ida plays at the Finborough Theatre until 18 April. For more information and tickets visit, the Finborough Theatre website. Photo by Scott Rylander.