Tuesday, 17 May 2011

I have a song to sing, O!

Crazy poster. When I first saw this I assumed it was a joke. But no, that was the actual poster for the production of Yeomen of the Guard I was in. With lego.
Now, Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid is not quite the incredible rarity that The Grand Duke is, but it is nonetheless something of an oddity among G&S shows. More serious, something of a downer ending, more grandly operatic. Also the dialogue feels perhaps a tad Shakespearean - Elizabethan rather, but nowadays that'll be mostly be associated with Shakespeare - with lines like "Nay, pretty one, why weepest thou?" But of course it still has the humorous side to it (For there is humour in all things). As I understand it, this was because Sullivan really wanted to write grand opera, whereas Gilbert was only interested in writing comic opera, so they compromised on this.

Dramatis Personae:
Sir Richard Cholmondely, Lieutenant of the Tower - An odd part. Very important, since he's in charge of the Tower and that's where the whole show takes place, but mostly he just comes on to sing a few pertinent words and then go off again while the chorus do their thing. Only has a couple of scenes of dialogue. I've heard it said that the Tower is supposed to have a sort of ominous presence throughout teh show, looming over the action, and I suppose the Lieutenant could represent that to a certain extent.
Potentially slightly odd to play, because he clearly sides with Colonel Fairfax, but will nonetheless impartially carry out the orders to have him executed.
Colonel Fairfax - under sentence of death for sorcery, though we are informed that he is a man of science and an alchemist, nothing more. A brave, even heroic man, who seems genuinely unafraid of death. Also something of a womaniser. To be honest, I find him much more interesting in Act 1, when the threat of death is hanging over him, but I like the part anyway, and it would have been my preferred part to play in the show.
A marked point is that despite being a soldier (Who might be expected to be rather serious) and sentenced to death, he remains cheerful throughout the show, in contrast to Jack Point (see below).
Sergeant Meryll - The solid sergeant of the Yeomen of the Guard, indebted to Colonel Fairfax, who saved his life twice; and so he hatches a plan to allow Fairfax to evade his execution. A good, fairly sizeable bass part.
Leonard Meryll - Sergeant Meryll's son, appointed to the Yeomen of the Guard as a reward for his valour. Crucial to the plot, but hardly onstage - the escape plan for Colonel Fairfax involves pretending Fairfax is Leonard, so the real Leonard can't very well be hanging around (Though I imagine most productions stick him in the chorus for most of the show like we did).
Jack Point, a strolling jester - The Merryman referred to in the alternative title. In contrast to Colonel Fairfax, one would naturally expect a jester to be cheerful, but despite expounding in his first scene the view that "There is humour in all things, and the truest philosophy is that which teaches us to find it, and to make the most of it," Jack Point is instead somewhat dull and gloomy, even a tragic figure. While he covers his sadness to an extent with his jokes, it gradually comes out as more and more things go wrong for him.
Of course, he also points out a potential feeling of tragedy which is innate to the jester's profession - "See, I am a salaried wit; and is there aught in nature more ridiculous? A poor, dull, heart-broken man, who must needs be merry, or he will be whipped; who must rejoice, lest he starve; who must jest you, jibe you, quip you, crank you, wrack you, riddle you, from hour to hour, from day to day, from year to year, lest he dwindle, perish, starve, pine and die! Why, when there's naught else to laugh at, I laugh at myself 'til I ache for it."
Wilfred Shadbolt, Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor - The character of Wilfred is more or less defined by jealousy. He loves Phoebe (See below), but she has no interest in him, so he is jealous of everything she does care about. However he remains entirely unaware of his own flaws, thinking himself something quite special. While he claims he "I didn't become a head jailer because I like head jailing! I didn't become an assistant tormentor because I like assistant tormenting!" nevertheless he clearly displays something of a vicious streak.
His character is pretty clearly showcased (To my mind) by his first scene and his song, which was cut from the original performances but is often reinstated, as we did. More on the cuts later.

Bit parts: The Headsman is listed, but all he has to do is stand onstage in the act 1 finale and not behead anyone because Colonel Fairfax has escaped. There are a couple of lines for citizens, in one scene, and then there are the First and Second Yeomen. Confusingly, the Second Yeoman is the first Yeoman to have a solo and the only one to have any spoken lines. And while his first solo is fairly high - tenor or high baritone, in the act 1 finale he's a more a bass, whereas the First Yeoman is a tenor. It seems to me it would make much more sense for that initial solo and the two lines to go to the First Yeoman, but whatever.
I played the Second Yeoman in our production.  Sadly I don't have any photos.

Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer - Travels with Jack Point. Though they're not married, Point seems to be under the impression that they will be at some point. Elsie needs money because her mother is ill.

Phoebe Meryll - Sergeant Meryll's daughter, who has taken something of a fancy to Colonel Fairfax, based on his valorous actions rescuing her father's life, and the fact she has seen him while he's been locked up in the tower, and it turns out he's young and handsome. Rather free-spirited and affectionate, apparently - she fears her returning brother will check her too much and try to make her act like "a nun, who has renounced all mankind," and Wilfred sings that "sometimes she does fell, disposed to indiscriminate caress." I'm not entirely sure who she's supposed to have been indiscriminately caressing though.
Dame Carruthers, housekeeper to the Tower -  Fairly standard G&S old lady alto part. Has a liking for Sergeant Meryll, and a bit of a bloodthirsty streak. Tremendously loyal to the Tower, having lived there apparently her whole life.
Kate - Dame Carruthers' niece. Practically a non-entity. On for one scene, in which Dame Carruthers effectively says all her lines for her, and then she sings in a quartet.

Rapid plot summary go!
As I said in the character descriptions, Fairfax is condemned to death, the Meryll's plan to save him by passing him off as Leonard (Once he has shaved off his beard so that none shall recognise him). Meanwhile, Fairfax reveals that his cousin has had him condemned to death in order to succeed to his estate, which devolves to him provided Fairfax dies unmarried. So he wants to marry immediately, and the Lieutenant agrees to find him a wife. The wife he finds is Elsie Maynard, who accepts the offered hundred crowns for the sake of her sick mother, on the understanding that Fairfax will be dead in an hour. But of course the Meryll's get him out and disguise him as Leonard. He is presented to the other yeomen, and gets sent with two others to fetch himself to be executed, only to find that he isn't there. Wilfred is shamed for letting him escape, Elsie is distraught because she's married to him and he's not dead, and Jack Point likewise. Elsie faints in Fairfax's arms.
Act 2, Elsie has been lying abed in the Meryll's house for two days being nursed back to health. Point and Wilfred agree to lie and say Wilfred shot Fairfax, so Point can get Elsie back, Wilfred will be a hero and Point will teach him to be a jester. Dame Carruthers reveals that her niece Kate, while nursing Elsie, heard her talking in her sleep about her marriage. Thus Fairfax finds out who his wife is. He talks to her, they hear a shot ring out, which Wilfred and Point explain was Wilfred shooting Fairfax. Point tries to win Elsie back, but she's in love with Fairfax and they go off together. In frustration at this, Phoebe inadvertently reveals to Wilfred that 'Leonard' is actually Fairfax, and must agree to marry him to keep him quiet, though Leonard arrives with news that Colonel Fairfax has been reprieved. Likewise, Dame Carruthers overhears some of the conversation, and in oredr to keep her quiet, Sergeant Meryll must agree to marry her.
Finally, Fairfax reveals himself to Elsie as himself, they (And Wilfred and Carruthers) are happy, and Point is heart-broken. The end.

So, cut things. Three major ones (Though an extended SavoyNet conversation has been going on recently all sorts of possible cuts, some of them utterly ridiculous and some more reasonable): 'When jealous torments' for Wilfred and 'A laughing boy' for Meryll, both cut from the original performances; and 'Rapture rapture', a duet for Carruthers and Meryll, included in the original performances but often cut nowadays.
The production I was in included the first two but not the third. Personally, I would definitely include 'When jealous torments' because it really gives you a handle on Wilfred's character, gives him something to sing before the act 1 finale, and is just a rather good song. In our production, however, I felt that it was taken too slowly. I recorded a video of me singing it at my preferred speed, but on listening back, I'm dissatisfied and will therefore not be uploading it.
The other two, though, I would be inclined to cut. 'A laughing boy' I don't really see the point of. It halts the flow of the scene for a song about a character who only appears in that scene and one other at the end of the show, and I just can't see why.
'Rapture rapture' I don't hate like some people do. But I do think it feels out of place. Someone in the SavoyNet discussion said they would include it because it's more cheerful attitude gives some relief before the downer ending, while I would cut it for the same reason - I feel it detracts from the seriousness of the slightly depressing ending. I also think it feels out of character for Dame Carruthers, who throughout the show is very dignified and proper, to suddenly start springing around singing "Rapture, rapture!" The song might work in a different context - I thought it worked alright where it was used in NUGSS' summer show of last year (With different words) - but I wouldn't want it in Yeomen.
Oh, also, someone else said they wouldn't cut it because that would reduce the part of Dame Carruthers. Personally, I'd say the part of Dame Carruthers is big enough without it.

Now, the other strange thing about Yeomen - it's the only G&S which doesn't start with a chorus number. It starts with a solo. Or two solos if you include 'When jealous torments'. I personally feel this is a bit of a flaw. The opening choruses never (Well, hardly ever) contribute to the plot, but what they do admirably is set the scene of the show, which is rather important. As it is, for that first scene with Phoebe and Wilfred, you could be anywhere - 'Tower warders' is needed to explain to everyone that we're in the Tower of London. As such, if a way could be found to make it work, I personally think Yeomen could be improved by putting 'Tower warders' at the start and moving Phoebe and Wilfred's scene a little way into it. Of course, as with my thoughts on Rudolph's song and hypothetical scene in act 2 of The Grand Duke, the problem is that we can't get W.S. Gilbert to write the change for us because he is unfortunately dead.

Now, as when I finished the show itself, on to HMS Pinafore!

1 comment:

  1. I agree that 'Laughing Boy' is probably included only to the detriment of the speed of the show; certainly in Gosforth's version, although the song wasn't badly done or anything, the first act really did not need to be any longer than it already was!!! I also agree that 'Jealous Torments' was too slow. I see no benefit in taking that particular song slowly, it is far superior for breathing, character and show progression at Patter Speed!!!

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