Saturday, 23 May 2015

There are pirates and pirates, piracy and piracy

Perhaps one of the few good things to emerge from piracy off the coast of Somalia, is that it has undermined the romantic, swashbuckling image of pirates.

That’s not to say that Somali pirates deserve no sympathy. It seems likely that they were originally fishermen whose grounds were being illegally exploited, or even damaged by toxic dumping, once civil war had made it impossible to guard their coasts. Later, though, they turned into brutal, cruel, mercenary criminals, as dramatically illustrated in the film Captain Phillips.

There can be little doubt that their forerunners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were very similar. Johnny Depp they weren’t.

That being said, some great pieces have shown pirates positively, and none better than Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful operetta The Pirates of Penzance. The Pirate King is no violent criminal, but an honest man who refuses the hypocrisy of society:

I sink a few more ships, it’s true, 
Than a well-bred monarch ought to do; 
But many a king on a first-class throne, 
If he wants to call his crown his own, 
Must manage somehow to get through 
More dirty work than ever I do.

There’s irony here, for Gilbert and Sullivan were themselves victims of a different kind of piracy. Today, the United States leads the battle against international copyright theft, but in the nineteenth century, it was a leading practitioner.

That explains why The Pirates of Penzance was the only G&S piece that had its premiere in America: sick to death of seeing ripped-off versions of their works being produced around the US, paying nary a penny in royalties, Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer D’Oyly Carte, put the new piece on for the first time in New York on 31 December 1879, to get round the lack of US protection for foreign material.

It was also important to protect the British copyright, so a public performance had to be given in England too. This took the form of a production rapidly cobbled together by actors who’d been in HMS Pinafore in nearby Torquay, appearing on stage in Paignton in whatever costumes they could find and reading their words from scripts, after a single rehearsal, simply to lay down a marker. And prevent piracy.

None of this worked. Pirates was pirated like the rest. 

It remains one of the most popular works in the G&S canon.

Some years ago, in that magical film Topsy Turvy – as charming as a G&S operetta – Mike Leigh, one of Britain’s finest film directors, demonstrated his deep affection for their work, and his ability to direct it. So it’s highly appropriate that English National Opera called on him for a production of the Pirates. And we rushed to see it just as soon as we could get tickets.

Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King, with his crew about him
in the ENO production directed by Mike Leigh
It entirely fulfilled our expectations. Leigh directed sequences of The Mikado beautifully in Topsy Turvy; he directed the whole of The Pirates of Penzance on stage brilliantly. He used a simple, abstract set, in which geometric shapes combined to give different configurations, often with a round opening in the middle, a perfect frame for tableaux of pirates, or the young women, or the policemen.

Leigh merged stage business cleverly into Gilbert’s script: wracking sobs from General Stanley when tormented by his conscience; pauses made comic by their intensity as Frederick grapples with his own sense of duty forcing him back to the pirates, and away from the woman he loves; a finely choreographed movement between the women, dancing, and policemen, marching, when they are being told to go to glory and the grave.

Incidentally, I’ve always enjoyed the police sergeant’s lines:

We observe too great a stress 
On the risks which on us press 
And of reference a lack 
To our chance of coming back!

Over thirty years before the First World War, it’s good to see mockery against high-flown sentiment about sending men to their deaths in pursuit of glory. Which isn’t to say that there’s any Ibsen-like gritty realism about Pirates: the messages are there, but we’re expected to receive them with a smile, not a shock.

Policemen in a highly nervous state
Jonathan Lemalu with his men at the ENO
Leigh had good support from his cast, too. Joshua Bloom was particularly good as the Pirate King, with the voice to fill the auditorium and make the character larger than life; Claudia Boyle, who played Mabel, sang with charm. And, having seen amateurs struggle through “I am the very model of a modern Major General”, it was a treat to see Andrew Shore take it in his stride. And the police were great.

The show naturally exposed us once more to the notion that pirates can form a well-organised, skilful and even attractive profession. Nothing like the bloodthirsty grasping thieves they really are. Still, the antidote to the lure of piracy is simply to remind oneself of Captain Phillips and the Somali hijackers. 

Or to remember some of the buccaneers from Wall Street or the City of London.

Meanwhile, there’s no reason to deny ourselves the pleasure of a fine afternoon’s entertainment.

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