Log In

Reset Password

The head jailer’s story

Arts reporter Mark Peters goes undercover to explore the shady world of a head jailer and assistant tormentor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, a comic opera the Gisborne Choral Society performs at Tairawhiti Museum next week.

Until the 17th century the decapitated heads of traitors executed at the Tower of London were displayed on pikes. It is here that Wilfred Shadbolt works as head jailer and assistant tormenter. Shadbolt is an oafish, unintentionally comic character in Victorian composers Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera The Yeomen of the Guard and it is the role of Wilfred that musical director Gavin Maclean cast me in for the Gisborne Choral Society’s production. Not wanting to typecast, or anything, he said.

Oh, and you’ll have some solo parts, he said.

Possibly this is why entry to the show is free or by koha.

Set in the 16th century, the plot of Yeomen hinges on the imprisonment of Colonel Fairfax (Tim McAneney) who has been accused of sorcery. The coquettish Phoebe (Marlene Nuttall) fancies him no end while Shadbolt, the Tower’s head jailer and assistant tormentor, is in love with Phoebe. The story involves disguises, identity mix-ups and the comic suggestion of inappropriate relations between a brother and sister. A sub-plot involves strolling player Jack Point (Gavin Maclean) who is in love with his side-kick Elsie (Beatrix Carino). Elsie, though, also loves Fairfax. Point promises to teach Shadbolt how to jest in return for which the jailer will fire a shot into the night and claim to have brought down the escaped prisoner, Fairfax, thus clearing the way for Point.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s work is lushly Victorian, laced with absurd comedy, ripping choruses and music. For a London-born rustic it has an atavistic atmosphere, a kind of inherited memory that gets goldy-misty at the thought of Punch and Judy, pantomimes, the Proms, dreaming spires and the word bunting. While the comedy in Yeomen is sometimes Monty Pythonesque, the libretto often seems to border on language poetry, a form in which modernists broke up language, and used metonym (substitution), synecdoche (figure of speech) and extreme instances of paratactical structures. Me and Shadbolt have no idea what that means either — it’s straight off Wikipedia. Suffice to say, when employing everyday speech language poetry created a different texture from the common parlance.

This is an excerpt from the early 20th century prose-poem Cezanne by poet Gertrude Stein who laid the way for the 1960s’ American language poetry movement:

“The Irish lady can say, that to-day is every day. Caesar can say that every day is to-day and they say that every day is as they say.

In this way we have a place to stay and he was not met because he was settled to stay. When I said settled I meant settled to stay. When I said settled to stay I meant settled to stay Saturday.”

River runneth rapidlyIn The Yeomen of the Guard the words make sense but the sounds of the words, even the syllables, patterned by the pace of the music are not a million miles from the essence of language poetry.

“If you vapour vapidly/River runneth rapidly/ Into it we fling Bird who doesn’t sing/Give us an experiment/In the art of merriment/Into it we throw Cock who doesn’t crow/Banish your timidity/And with all rapidity/Give us quip and quiddity”, goes one chorus. Like some pop, rock or rap, possibly even opera, it makes perfect sense when put to music. Even better, it’s upbeat and a good laugh.

In Act 2, a long, near music hall-like exchange between Wilfred and Point after the alleged shooting of Fairfax changes tempo, key and tone as the duo elaborate on their fiction. Jaw press-ups, mouth stretches and tongue Pilates are needed beforehand to be able to get the words out.

Singing soloIf playing the part of an unintentionally comic oaf was going to be a reach, taking on singing solo parts was a whole new challenge.

Only recently the realisation dawned on me The Yeomen of the Guard is an opera.

An opera! The musical form in which people with big beards, big breasts, big hair and big clothes sing words no one can understand, especially if it’s in Italian. If the performers just spoke the words and made faces like in a regular play, no problem. It might even be a good night out.

That’s Wilfred talking, not me. Direct complaints to Arthur Sullivan, The Crypt, St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The revelation was a . . . relevation. The challenge now lies in uncovering Shadbolt’s character. Not only in what he says but how other people respond to, or see him, and to bring that to the singing. Shadbolt doesn’t have to be pure-voiced like Hayley Westenra or Placido Domingo. He has to get the notes right, more or less, and more importantly . . . thetiming.

A Pythonesque exchange in which the jailer/tormentor and jester Point convince people Shadbolt shot Fairfax has an almost music-hall patois, except it is sung and it runneth rapidly.

Wilfred: Like a ghost his vigil keeping -

Point: Or a spectre all-appalling.

Wilfred: I beheld a figure creeping -

Point: I should rather call it crawling.

Wilfred: He was creeping.

Point: He was crawling.

Wilfred: He was creeping, creeping.

Point: Crawling.

The duo are trying to convince the authorities and the alarmed populace but argue over points in the fiction when Wilfred claims he snatched an arquebus from a sentry and “with an ounce or two of lead” dispatched Fairfax through the head.

Wilfred: I discharged it without winking, little time I lost in thinking, like a stone I saw him sinking.

Point: I should say a lump of lead.

Wilfred: Like a stone, my boy, I said.

Point: Like a heavy lump of lead.

Wilfred: Anyhow the man is dead, whether stone or lump of lead.

Since the lightning-bolt realisation Yeomen is an opera, another significant challenge struck me, harder this time.

In this concert version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical comedy I need to project my voice in an operatic fashion. A newbie to the art of choral singing can mesh his or her voice with other voices or tune into masters either side to stay on track with the notes. Singing solo, in an operatic fashion, and without sinking like a stone (don’t start), is a whole different bucket of bloaters.

Other male principals like Maclean and Derek Allan who plays Sergeant Meryll, the returned hero who swaps places with the imprisoned Fairfax so the Colonel’s head doesn’t end up on a pike under London Bridge, can make themselves heard from across the Thames. I end — Wilfred ends up coughing. I’m channelling Placido so it should be OK. All Wilfred wants to hear is the audience laughing their ‘eads off.

The Gisborne Choral Society presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Yeomen of the Guard, Tairawhiti Museum, Sunday, June 16, 2pm. Entry free or koha.

ASSISTANT TORMENTOR: The Tower of London’s head jailer and assistant tormentor Wilfred Shadbolt, played by WH Denny in the original 1888 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Yeomen of the Guard at the Savoy Theatre, is tormented by his infatuation with Phoebe (Jessie Bond) who at one point promises to marry him (pictured). Mark Peters plays Shadbolt in the Gisborne Choral Society’s free production next week. Picture supplied
Red stage curtain with arch entrance