The longest and, arguably, most vocally difficult of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, Princess Ida mostly involves two things: milking the timeless trope of men prancing around in women’s skirts, and lampooning university-educated women as sexless, banshee man-haters.
Thus, when the director of The Oxford University Gilbert and Sullivan Society explained to me that Ida is rarely performed, I was not exactly surprised. Demanding score aside, Ida presents an ugly challenge in that its entire premise is offensive to fifty-percent of Oxford’s student body. The synopsis of Princess Ida, just by itself, provokes all sorts of uncomfortable cringe-worthy moments.
But, honestly, even if we forget my feminist agenda for a minute, the problem with Ida is that the basis of the comedy just doesn’t exist anymore. I doubt even the most diehard conservative currently at Oxford would find anything inherently funny in the fact that a woman is sitting next to him or (gasp!) teaching him in tutorial. Add to this the general challenges student productions face when taking on Gilbert and Sullivan—difficult and wide-ranging music, large casts, a flimsy plot, and outdated humour—and Princess Ida is not exactly a college director’s recipe for success.
Still, from the brief twenty-minute snapshot to which I was privy, I admit that I found myself smiling and shaking my foot to the beat of the music.
Andrew Dickinson (Hilarion), Rory Morrison (Cyril), and Sam Lane’s (Florian) vocal performances were solid, and titular character Abigail Adams’ controlled, clear voice was simply a joy.
In terms of everything else, the over-the-top facial expressions and awkwardly performed, “Dear director, I can’t believe you’re making me do this” choreography (to be fair, the three men did have to do some elaborate twirling of their parasols), made for an amusing twenty minutes. That said, I wasn’t exactly snorting and giggling. I’m not sure for how long mildly silly antics and pretty voices could stave off general boredom – let alone the deeper, more existential discomfort with the play that much of the audience is bound to have.
Overall, I would recommend this production to fans of Gilbert and Sullivan and those who don’t listen too carefully to lyrics. Those who are unable (or unwilling) to suspend their political beliefs about women’s right to a university-level education should probably look elsewhere for an evening of entertainment.
Princess Ida will run from the 28th of February to the 2nd of March (Thurs-Sat of 7th Week) in Corpus Christi Auditorium. Tickets available from £8
PHOTO/ Andrew North