Theatre in Wales

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WNO Tours with a Suffragette Hit

Rhondda Rips It Up!

Welsh National Opera , Lyric Theatre , June-13-18
Rhondda Rips It Up! by Welsh National Opera In the centenary year of the first parliamentary act to grant women suffrage Welsh National Opera has got itself a hit. That is good for a national company. It has taken it out on the road. That is good for audiences of Wales, and it is good for a company too. The third performance of composer Elena Langer's opera is a tight fit on the Lyric's stage- the piece is performed by thirty women, comprised of nineteen singers, ten musicians and conductor all in view. It is nimbly done. “Rhondda Rips It Up!” has a lot of movement in it. The visual sparkle is down to choreographer Kay Shepherd and director Caroline Clegg. The programme credits a further 18 women in all the key offstage roles, with 5 men contributing in roles of dialogue coach, lighting and production management.

From its title to its promotion “Rhondda Rips It Up!” is intended as something different. Leslie Garrett at the close calls it opera-cabaret but it is not quite that. She plays the Emcee in Vesta Tilley-style waistcoat and tails. In the tradition of music hall librettist Emma Jenkins has given her a language of splendiforous, floribundant adjectival crescendo. Elena Langer's own description is that her music is a hybrid which draws on operetta, vaudeville, music hall. Categorisation is anyhow a cause of fret for critical pedants. An audience is enthralled or it is not. Carmarthenshire, which normally must travel to see its national company, demonstrably adores this show.

The concept for the production belongs to David Pountney. Its working-out has a lot of boldness to it. The political objective of a century ago was deadly serious and the historical chronicle is grim. Violence against state property, and a Velazquez artwork, was met with state retribution. These campaigners regularly put themselves in hazard- not to the extent of Emily Davidson- but the risk of violence against the person was still high. The Asquith government's response in the “Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act” of 1913 had an absolute logic to it, albeit a logic of brutally pragmatic intolerance. To reanimate this historical material with a spirit of fun is a considerable artistic risk. It works.

The jauntiness of style and tone is set early by Emma Jenkins. Lady Rhondda, sings the company, “won much applause/ from politics to the menopause.” The cast regularly changes dress to play clusters of moustachioed, cigar-chewing, frock-coated legislators. Lara Booth's design incorporates five high banners with a schematic design of pithead, mountain and valley across them. The stage is flanked by two high wooden panels of the Edwardian era. Part-inspiration has been found in Newport's Temperance Hall. Panels pop open for Asquith to pronounce on government attitude. At the close a Lloyd George in cardboard mask appears to declare the first legislation to be enacted. Churchill and Lord Birkenhead also feature as characters.

The jauntiness of tone ends the first act with Madeleine Shaw's Lady Rhondda in a Rolls Royce heading for Usk gaol to the sound of “to prison, tally ho.” Skillfully the second act opens with a solo on the terrible isolation of incarceration. “Sheer taut misery” was the phrase historian Angela V John cited in her accomplished, 640 page biography of 2013. The life of Margaret Haig Thomas, raised in Llanwern, was long and full. The script, by necessity an edited version of the life, plays down the contradiction of a consummate establishment figure being simultaneously its rebel and protester. Her boardroom presence in the industries of Wales was formidable. She was the first, and still only, woman to be President of the Institute of Directors.

The script does home in on her achievement as a publisher. In nightdresses Madeleine Shaw and Anitra Blaxhall sing a duet about the founding of “Time and Tide.” Earlier the first meeting of Margaret and Helen Archdale is marked by a moving duet that is the emotional high-point of the production. A good script can be light but a good script-maker never forgets it needs emotion that is genuine and felt.

The production also incorporates elements of the era in which emancipation at the ballot box was just one aspect. The campaigners educate themselves by reading Havelock Ellis. Elena Langer includes a saxophone in her orchestration. The design draws on many props and visual material of the time. The poster image entitled “A Woman's Mind Magnified” raises a predictable audience response. The title of Harry Roy's song, sung with gusto by Leslie Garrett, is not repeatable on a site open to all eyes.

The production ends on a rousing high. “Shall we? Shall we?” asks Leslie Garrett of the audience. The company, in the tradition of the musical, delivers an encore. Emma Jenkins' anthem runs “We won't surrender until it's done/ We won't surrender until we've won.” Opera singers excel in languages so when Leslie Garrett next gets to say
“penblwydd hapus” it sounds good. Indeed June 12th, being the birthdate of Margaret Haig Thomas in 1883, deserves commemoration. So audience and national opera company sing “Happy Birthday” in communion.

David Pountney has done many things in a long career. But this must surely be a first in the history of opera performance.

The production enjoys the support of the ever valuable Colwinston Trust and the Nicholas John Trust. The principal sponsor is Associated British Ports. “Rhondda Rips It Up!” continues to Cardiff, Brecon, London, Malvern, Treorchy and Newtown until June 29th. The tour recommences at Taliesin 3rd October.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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