‘The Yeomen of the Guard; or The Merryman (a merryman was a jester) and His Maid’, is a dark but charming Savoy Opera penned in 1888. This genre of comic opera is named after the London Savoy Theatre where most of G and S operas premiered and played. It was a simple argument over the recarpeting of this theatre that caused the breakup of this famous partnership.
The Yeomen’s score is often thought to be the most ambitious work by composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and librettist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. Sullivan was born into poverty in east London’s Lambeth; however, things looked up when his father became bandmaster at Sandhurst’s Military School. At the age of only 14 yrs. Sullivan was awarded a Mendelssohn Scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music.
After the couple wrote 14 operas together, the London-born lawyer Gilbert, then wrote a further 75 plays, poetry and illustrated his own books. It was Gilbert’s satirical, topsy turvy comedy ‘Engaged’ that motivated Oscar Wilde to write ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
The ‘Yeomen’ – a military hero, or a man with a small freehold plot of land – is a very funny opera, written in Shakespearean-style, sixteenth century prose and crammed with one-liners and puns. Many of these slick lines just passed the audience by.
This lively and power-packed three-hour spectacle from The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of WA (Inc.) begins at 7.30 each evening (be warned, parking can be difficult) at the Dolphin Theatre in the grounds of the University of WA in Nedlands until Saturday 2nd November. There are matinées on Saturday 26th September and 2nd November at 2.00 pm; these two days will be veritable marathons for the performers. With the popularity and fine work of this Society, the strong cast and JMS Promotions, the tickets were in great demand long before the season started, so be quick.
The scene: The Tower of London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth l in the 16th century.
The set: shows the Tower’s grass area, The Green; at the rear of the stage, the battlements between the Bell Tower and Beauchamp’s Tower. The Badge of the Yeoman (a beautifully embroidered large flag) was hanging above the stage.
The orchestra’s brass section was partially tucked into the wings and a short, extended apron was added at the other side of the stage. By removing a couple of rows of seating, an orchestra pit was created in front of the stage for the thirty-piece accompaniment.
The realistic set design and construction was by Barry Boyd with the fine lighting by Matt Erren. The spotlights were carefully operated, well done.
A few difficult props including a spinning wheel and a dozen halberds (spears) were sourced by Andrew Hahn and Francois van Wyk.
The fast-moving production was overseen by Production Manager Max Page and stage managed by Andrew Hahn.
Sergeant Meryll’s daughter Phœbe (Marli van der Bijl) sits at the spinning wheel, sighing with the pain of her loveless life. The Tower of London’s elderly head jailer and assistant torturer, Wilfred Shadbolt (Ross Bryant) enters. Disgusted by his occupation, Phoebe derides him. Non-the-less, Wilfred is in love with Phoebe, but he has observed Phoebe’s feelings for one of his prisoners, handsome Colonel Fairfax (Chad Henderson) a scientist who is soon to be beheaded for sorcery. The housekeeper of the Tower, Dame Carruthers (Avalon Rector) and her mimicking niece, Kate (Paris Ceglinski), ignore the protests by Phoebe, the citizens and the Yeomen of Fairfax’s harsh and unfair treatment.
Sergeant Meryll (Glen Rowan) tells Phoebe that because of his bravery, her brother Leonard has been appointed a Yeoman. They are hopeful that Leonard (Cam East) on his return from seeing the Queen in Windsor, will have a reprieve for the Colonel. Leonard has several dispatches for the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Richard Cholmondeley (pronounced Chum’lee – Max Page) but sadly, no pardon. Not only has Sergeant Meryll fought in battle with Fairfax but the Colonel saved Meryll’s life twice.
Fairfax is greeted despondently by his old friend the Lieutenant of the Tower, as Fairfax bravely accepts his impending execution. Phoebe and Sergeant Meryll shed tears. Fairfax explains that the charge of sorcery was the work of the Secretary of State, his evil cousin Sir Clarence Poltwhistle who will inherit the family estate if he, the Colonel, dies unmarried. With the executioner (John Garrity) looming, a plan is devised; Leonard will hide away, then Fairfax will escape from his cell and assume Leonard’s identity. Phoebe must employ all her charms to get the keys for Fairfax’s cell from the infatuated but gullible warden, Wilfred (a wonderful duo with so much fun).
‘The Merryman and his Maid’ refer to a strolling jester, Jack Point (Liam Auhl – fabulous performance) and a young itinerant singer, Elsie Maynard (Emily Schinkel) who are accompanied by a recorder playing friend (Anna Maydwell / Louise Smith). They are being pursued by a boisterous throng demanding gaiety.
Will love win through? And if so, who will marry whom?
The Yeomen were Barry Boyd, Gavin Ryan, Nico Keppler, Roger Starbuck, Terry Hanavan, Tim Riessen and Vikram Tilak.
The Maidens and Matrons: Aimee-Rose Keppler, Amelie van Wyk, Angela Brailey, Blanche Holzman, Claire Cooling, Claire McGrath, Hannah-Jade Keppler, Jennifer van den Hoek, Liza Cobb, Sue Hansen and Zoe Cooling.
Children of the Tower: Makayla Maloney, Alisha Boyatzis, Nikki Bennett-Watt, Flavia Mancini, Lily Risinger and Charlotte O’Hara.
The Conductor, or ‘Maestro’ as the cast referred to him during the performance, was the indefatigable Georg Corall attired in his sequined black jacket. Georg’s Concertmaster was Susan Page.
The musicians were: Violins – Winston t’Hart, David Machonochie, Marie-Victoire Cumming, Maxine Fong, Adeline Fong, Kristy Hughes. Violas – Scott Trethowen, Patrick Meyer. ‘Cellos – Amanda Reynolds, Russell Vernon. Double bass – Keith Bender. Flutes – Jennifer Mummert, Lucy Kennedy, Tim Walker. Oboe – Sheila Byfield. Clarinets – Adrianne Dunlop, Liam House. Bassoons – Sarah Collins, Jake Busby, Melanie Starkey. Horns – Sandra McKenna, Ben Lancaster, Jim Gunson. Trumpets – Margaret Thomas, Kelly Bradley, Paul Olsen. Trombones – Brian Underwood, David Kearsley and on Percussion – Daniel Cullingford.
In a smallish auditorium, with the orchestra between the players and the audience, the challenge is to get a perfect balance without drowning the singers. Well done to the conductor and every musician. Great balance and not a single bum note!
The execution was pending, so with the use of the violas and the peeling bell (a special percussion tube) a wonderful poignant mood was created.
There were no well-known songs in this opera, but the two dozen melodies were very pleasant and of course there was the usual generous helping of G and S’s tongue-twisting lyrics, which the cast coped with magnificently. Congratulations to the jester who did his remarkable ‘prestissimo’ repeat, still in tune and with perfect diction. Liam is an actor to watch, he could sing, dance and deliver comedy perfectly. Marli also had a captivating sense of humour and was magnificently matched with Ross by the adventurous and inventive director, Michael Brett who set a cracking pace and numerous laughs from quirky movements. The young children were a delight, they knew every word and sang their hearts out.
The leads all had fine melodic voices, but occasionally – towards the end of the three-hour performance – a little more projection was required.
The sumptuous period costumes were by Veronica Hudson and her seamstresses Gail Reading, Tanya Hill, Laura Hill, Claire Holdsworth, Charlotte Rollinson and Anne Poepjes. The Warden’s hats were of black velvet, trimmed with the red, white and blue flowers; with the shoes adorned similarly. The Yeomen’s uniforms were beautifully styled and correct, often confused with the other Beefeater’s varieties. The ladies’ gowns and the children’s dresses were carefully styled and fitted.
I was pleased to see Max Page’s quality programme also included a Vale to Max Kay, a good friend I knew for almost 60 years.
There have been numerous cuts and modifications to the original musical, many made within the first month of opening, but some were made even after Gilbert and Sullivan’s deaths. For the aficionados, the 1993 D’Oyly Carte recording includes all the cut music.
This is the first time that I have seen this opera, it was great fun but the whole experience was brought to life by director Michael and a well-rehearsed talented cast. Highly recommended.