Princess Ida at the Finborough
Finborough Theatre is a small but perfectly formed space that consistently turns out excellent productions. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida is no exception. Phil Willmott directs the first professional production of Princess Ida in London in 20 years, which is surprising considering the delight that it brings to audiences.
Prince Hilarion (Zac Wancke) and Princess Ida (Bridget Costello) have been betrothed since birth. 20 years later, Princess Ida has been led to believe that her best future efforts lie with leading a women’s university; educating women to challenge the patriarchy and deny all men. Hilarion has other ideas, as does her guardian Lord Gama (Simon Butteriss), who seeks to swoop in and claim his prize after interning her at the university. Ida has ideas of her own, yet they do change after an accidental meeting with her official betrothed husband, who has disguised himself as a woman to gain entry to the university.
It’s an exciting sight to see two pianos facing each other from either side of the stage. As soon as the first song breaks there is nothing but smiles among the audience and cast. Men disguised as women and giggling shouldn’t be funny anymore, but it is. It’s lighthearted and portrayed hysterically by Hilarion and his friends. Willmott creates stunning tableaus in the intimate space: one of note is five maidens in Grecian-style dress, wielding hockey sticks at a male army.
It’s some feat on this small stage to have so many dancing cast members and not have them crash into each other. The dancing is remarkably graceful and the singing is a joy to hear. The entire female chorus seems overwhelmingly breathtaking from the start. Hilarion comes into his own with Whom Thou Hast Chained in the second act. It is genuinely moving and impressive. Lord Gama provides a wonderful introduction to his dastardly nature, complete with a brief moment of impeccably timed audience interaction, out of sync with the rest of the play, but it works.
Princess Ida is a contradiction. The topics it covers were considered controversial in its time, now it is pleasing in a feminist sense, in that the women insist upon education and emancipation, though they inevitably find themselves pairing off. The marriage scenes clearly recognise same-sex pairings in a welcome nod to the present.
This play should not go unperformed in London for such a long time ever again, nor should it be missed at the Finborough.
Princess Ida is on at Finborough Theatre until 18th April 2015, for further information or to book visit here.