THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. Andrew Shore, Robert Murray, Jonathan Lemalu, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Joshua Bloom. Directed by Mike Leigh. 140 minutes (includes 20 minute interval). Unrated.
In this special cinematic presentation of live performances from the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, much loved British filmmaker Mike Leigh turns his attention to one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic operas, and the results are suitably rousing.
There are no significant changes to the plot (which will likely be familiar in some fashion to most attendees). Frederic (Robert Murray), an apprentice pirate under an ineffective Pirate King (Joshua Bloom), has reached his 21st birthday and his traineeship has run its course. Free to leave, he is set upon a life spent righting his wrongs, by hunting his former comrades down to bring them to justice. Once ashore, he meets the daughters of Major-General Stanley (Andrew Shore), and the lovely Mabel (Claudia Boyle) agrees to his speedy marriage proposal.
With the Major-General’s help, Frederic liaises with the local Sergeant of Police (Jonathan Lemalu) to take the pirate crew down. However, when an issue concerning Frederic’s true age surfaces, his new loyalties and marriage plans may fall foul of his contractual duties to his former band of brothers.
The experience of watching live opera as a stream in a cinema is certainly an odd one, though that’s not to say a bad one. It opens with 10 minutes spent watching the crowd settle in their seats before the show start – so far, so much like the live experience. It’s significantly cheaper than actually attending a performance, and the cameras used pick up great costuming and performer details through their use of close-ups which most live performance attendees would miss, plus cameras inside the orchestra pit shine a light on the often unsung musical heroes. The audio is crisp, but there are moments that you suspect some of the mixing has drowned out some of the live layering which would be a more complex aural experience. The 20 minute interval was spent by most attendees in conversation with each other, and it was a more communal cinema event than most I’ve attended. It’s questionable whether the stream captures the same electricity as the live performance, but it’s a solid alternative for anyone not able to journey to London for the more costly, genuine experience.
The cast are expectedly top notch, representing a slice of the best British performers working on stage today. Robert Murray would struggle to pass for 21 anywhere, but he brings a fine tenor range and very likable stage presence to the lead. Claudia Boyle’s soprano vocal acrobatics are impressive and also amusing when the occasion warrants it. Joshua Bloom’s high camp Pirate Captain is nicely juxtaposed by Andrew Shore’s Major-General, whose stately rendition of the renowned ‘Modern Major-General's Song’ is a highlight. Finally, the biggest laughs of the production are notched up by the bass tones of Jonathan Lemalu and his troop of policemen.
As a director, Leigh’s preference is for light and playful. The stage design is boldly stylised, with simplistic and surreal sets washed with primary colours. The costuming is highly traditional, with rich period garb everywhere. The music is unsurprisingly fantastic, and conductor David Parry leads the band with gusto.
As is likely evident by the limited number of screenings that this stream will enjoy in a limited number of cinemas, this is not a day out that’s designed for everyone. However, any opera lovers or Mike Leigh aficionados would have far worse ways to spend a few hours.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out July 11.