A former “rock-band performer”, the NIDA educated theatre maker Geoff Kelso has spent his life acting, writing and directing. He spoke to Casey Andreou about his interpretation of ‘Iolanthe’ for the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Western Australia’s 2016 annual production, with musical direction by Michael Brett.

A renowned comedic actor, Kelso will incorporate modern influences to the iconic comic opera in light of our own political climate. A life-long admirer of the Victorian era duo Gilbert and Sullivan, Kelso leapt at the opportunity to direct the upcoming production. “I’ve always loved Gilbert and Sullivan productions, so I’m like a gun for hire. What appeals to me is the fantastic music, because even though it’s from the late 19th century there’s still lots of brilliant tunes, and that accompaniment is what really brings the show together. Also, I’m attracted to the the fact that it’s extremely funny, which is my forte as a comic performer and writer. The very semblance of the story appeals, the fact that a whole bunch of fairies get together to invade England’s Houses of Parliament and transform the place.”

Iolanthe chronicles the fantastical affairs of fairies and the Peers in the House of Lords, and provides a wonderful satire of late-nineteenth century English politics. In it, the fairy Iolanthe has been banished for falling in love with a mortal, which is of course forbidden. Twenty-five years later, her son Strephon has fallen in love with the Ward of Chancery, but his desire to court her is refused by her guardian the Lord Chancellor. “The fairies decide the only way to deal with these Peers is to get Strephon into Parliament, and he is able to do so because the Fairy Queen allows it – a little like how some people get into the Australian Senate today- as if by a magic!”

Kelso commends the brilliant use of satire within the opera which is “still very modern. In the second act, there’s a Grenadier Guard standing outside Parliament. When he performs his solo, he sings ‘when in that House M.P.’s divide/ if they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too/ they’ve got to leave that brain outside/ and vote just as their leaders tell ‘em to!’ Which is exactly what happens in politics today!”

Although he has acted on screen in various film and television projects, including Son of a Gun (2014) and Cloudstreet (2011), Kelso prefers the “visceral buzz” of live performances. “The instant reaction from the audience can’t be attained in any other form of performance. I certainly enjoy working on camera, but live performances have such a vibrant quality because the performer is right in front of you, doing it right then and there. You get a wave of laughter that you can ride and build on.’

Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan collaborated between the years of 1871 and 1896 on over fourteen operas, most notably The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore, as well as Iolanthe, and are regarded as the innovators responsible for modern musicals. “To me, Gilbert and Sullivan mean the beginning of musicals. They became very popular back in their day and became very, very wealthy. They were huge, and would have been a serious inspiration for all those early 20th century composers and librettists, like Jerome Kerr.” Invariably, with success comes imitation, and Kelso says “Americans, the theatrical entrepreneurs, would try and find out from someone in London what each Gilbert and Sullivan show was about, because the duo would try and keep the plot under wraps. But Americans would inevitably find and steal the idea, performing their own version which was apparently very bad”. As, I reminded him, they always are.

“At one point, Gilbert and Sullivan decided that they would take one of their productions to New York and they did it in secret, keeping the actual score and libretto locked up in a trunk. When they got to New York they presented the proper version of the show and thereby established themselves as the genuine article; because audiences had been watching these second-rate versions of their stuff.”

This production of Iolanthe arrives as a time when our own politics often seem like satire, and with the upcoming State and Federal elections the parallels between the Grenadier Guard’s song and our own government becomes increasingly clear. “In those days they called the two main parties the Whigs and the Tories, our Labor and Liberal. By the time we perform, the country will be three or four weeks into this current election cycle, so this will be some much needed comic relief poking fun at politics, because I think we’ll be dead sick of it by then!”

Interview by Casey Andreou

Iolanthe will run from 2 – 11 June at Dolphin Theatre, at The University of Western Australia. Tickets available here. You can see Geoff Kelso perform in the The Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle from 30 July – 14 August.