Iolanthe provides a last hurrah for witty, inventive stage designer

The creations of Paul Brown, who died last year, will star in ENO’s new version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic

If the audience laughs out loud at a new London Coliseum production of Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, on Tuesday night, some credit must clearly go to WS Gilbert. In the right hands, his Victorian firecracker lyrics can still go off with a bang.

Yet, according to its director, Cal McCrystal, any chuckles that come will also have been earned by the late Paul Brown, the inventive Welsh stage designer for whom the show will mark a colourful “last hurrah”.

Brown, famed in theatre and opera for his fertile imagination, died in November at the age of 57 after a career packed with striking visual coups de théâtre and a fair bit of controversy. From large copulating bunny rabbits at Glyndebourne’s opera house to a flooded stage at the Almeida theatre in north London, Brown’s work won him acclaim across the industry. With this final Iolanthe, Brown had the chance to give full rein to his feeling for historical detail and sense of fun.

“Paul said to me early on, when we were discussing designs, that opera directors normally want him to cover the floor with blood during the last act, whereas with this show he was more likely to be asked to bring on a horse for comic value,” said McCrystal. “The first night is going to be painful in certain places because Paul is not going to be with me to see the jokes we planned.”

McCrystal, best known as the architect of startling pratfalls and slapstick for James Corden and company in the National Theatre hit One Man Two Guv’nors, comes to English National Opera’s Iolanthe fresh from big-screen triumph as the creative force behind the comic antics in the Paddington sequel. He was introduced to Brown at the suggestion of ENO’s artistic director, Daniel Kramer, and the two soon developed a strategy for prompting the maximum response from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 136-year-old classic.

“Everyone who knows my stuff will expect some physical comedy in the show,” said McCrystal, “but I think when the audience see the glorious proscenium and the painted backcloth, they will heave a sigh of relief. It is just the right setting for it. We are incredibly honoured to be putting on Paul’s very last work.”

The joint plan from the first was to keep the show rooted in its own era, and allow the humour to spring from a firm 19th-century footing. “We both felt it would have to be done in accurate period design, as opposed to the current ENO trend for modern settings,” said McCrystal. “Paul saw that immediately. He said to me: ‘You want to set the realism up so you can kick it around.’ After all, if your cast are standing in front of a futuristic titanium ball, nobody knows where they are. And a pantomime set would not be right for these jokes. For a start, the text is already funny, so we are not lampooning it. And then the music is some of the most beautiful Arthur Sullivan wrote, so we certainly wanted to respect that.”

Brown’s floating stage set for Aida wowed audiences at the Bregenz Festival in 2009.
Brown’s floating stage set for Aida wowed audiences at the Bregenz Festival in 2009. Photograph: Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Brown, who grew up in the Vale of Glamorgan, had forged close working relationships with the directors Graham Vick and Jonathan Kent. He clocked up 40 productions with Kent, including the version of The Tempest at the Almeida in 2000 in which Ariel swam across the flooded stage. Described by the Guardian as the most inventive staging of Shakespeare since Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it involved opening up the basement, as well as going through the ceiling, said Kent this weekend. “Paul didn’t belong to any school of design. There was no recurrent design motif. He just responded to the work. Although I suppose, at heart, he was a baroque designer, but that [wasn’t] all he could do. There was an innate energy to it all,” he said.

Kent compares their professional creative partnership to a marriage, with the same high points, shared jokes and squabbles, “especially as we travelled so much together”.

“Paul had a huge sense of fun and we sort of fitted. He was tremendously important to my life. He could go from the extremes of innovation, to the traditional romanticism of a Tosca set. We even did a muscial together on Broadway, Man of la Mancha.”

A swansong with Gilbert and Sullivan, loved by Brown, is a fitting tribute to Brown’s talent, Kent said.

McCrystal is promising “lots of outlandish props”, plus animals and “super-realistic puppetry”. But he and Brown, charged by ENO with matching the success of Mike Leigh’s recent Pirates of Penzance and of the frequently revived Jonathan Miller Mikado, are treading carefully on Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions. Like the House of Lords in Iolanthe, which is, so the peers sing, “not susceptible of any improvement at all”, McCrystal is wary of messing up the original jokes.

“As well as the rich humour in the text, there will also be some of my physical stuff on top. Iolanthe actually has a really simple plot, it just sounds complicated if you try to explain it in a couple of minutes: everyone is in love with Phyllis, and she loves this one, and so who’s going to get her? Sometimes, if there are four different groups of people singing different things, the Victorian language is hard to follow, that’s all.”

As for Paul Brown’s visual wit and brio, that will speak for itself.
Iolanthe is at the Coliseum, London from 13 February to 7 April

Paul Brown, who died last year.
Paul Brown, who died last year. Photograph: Harriet Selka

1995

Angels and Insects

Oscar-nominated costumes that used clothes as carapace.

2000

Coriolanus, Richard II Old guano-covered doors in the derelict Gainsborough Studios were scrubbed and each splatter painted back.

The Tempest
Ariel dived through a pool of water on the Almeida stage.

2004

Pelléas et Mélisande
Glyndebourne finale with flaming stairs.

La Traviata
A Violetta resembling a prostitute shocked aficionados in Verona.

2006


Tosca
‘Ravishing’ Royal Opera production.

2009


The Fairy Queen
Remembered for its giant rutting rabbits.

Aida, on the Bregenz lake stage, with gunboats and moving cranes.

2013


Hippolyte et Aricie
Shiny bugs glittered from behind a fridge at Glyndebourne.

2018


Iolanthe
A rigorously authentic setting of the comic classic.

Contributor

Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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