They're more like cut-ups than cut-throats, but it still takes a vast - avast! - deal of discipline to lark around as The Pirates of Penzance. Michael Fallow briefly captured some of the Invercargill-bound cast.
So George Henare was back home on the farm with kids all over the place, listening to that music of theirs. Music that he found, shall we say, challenging.
"Okay," he said. "Turn that off for a minute. Now give me a beat . . ."
They did. He drew a heroic breath and began: I am the very model of a modern Major- General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical . . .
And so it kept coming, that breathtaking and increasingly anaerobic outpouring of superbly structured syllables.
These particular kids were gratifyingly gobsmacked.
Uncle, they demanded, what's that?
"That," Henare imperiously declared, "was Victorian rap".
Mind you, he now confides, he hadn't felt the need to add that in those days they just called it patter.
Tim Beveridge laughs at that story.
"Bust that rhyme, P-Diddy," he declares.
The last thing this Pirates crew want, however, is to desperately rework or send up what is already a musical comedy masterpiece.
Says director Raymond Hawthorne: "Some of the treatment given to Pirates recently has been very low-class, I've thought."
This is Gilbert and Sullivan. Not a panto. "It's quite high comedy. Outrageously funny, but very witty, urbane and sophisticated in its thinking. You don't need to add a lot of high camp rubbish on top of it."
They'll get by, Hawthorne grandly declares, on talent, panache, and the sheer quality of the material.
So, then, nix to Beveridge, as the Pirate King, camping it up in Johnny Depp mode.
However, Beveridge is at least momentarily tempted by our backup suggestion he adopt the persona of New Zealand's real-life pirate king.
"Kim Dotcom?" he muses. "Play it like a big, fat German?"
Eventually he sets the idea aside, but gently. After all, the whole modern-day internet piracy kerfuffle does fit nicely alongside the backstory of Penzance.
Gilbert had written the work in the peptic displeasure of knowing that the partnership's previous hits were being ripped off in unauthorised US productions for which the authors were receiving no royalties. Piracy, indeed.
Geraldine Brophy says we shouldn't be surprised to find parallels presenting themselves nowadays.
"Classical work, by definition, never loses its relevance," she purrs.
In common with the others, Brophy feels a need to be "completely faithful to the beautiful heart of the piece".
"It's something to be embraced, from an age of innocence that we've lost."
She truncheons any suggestion that this makes it less than cutting-edge.
"I loathe that expression," she says. "I don't know what they mean by it. They seem to try these things so often that it gets to the point where doing something originally is cutting-edge."
Ah, but isn't it just a tad fashionable that she - an actor of the female variety - is playing the Sergeant of Police following comedienne Jo Brand's recent success in that role in the UK?
Well, there's a much longer tradition, she reminds us, of gender bending in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, including those countless performances by single- sex schools.
And anyway. Girls can do anything. Bumbling, cowardly ineptitude included, thank you very much.
So upon what policing influences will she be drawing? Here Brophy breaks ranks, just a bit. Best not to tell any of the production's more resolute classicists, perhaps, but strictly between us . . .
"I like to think of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.
"Obviously there will be a little more flesh and perhaps not quiiiite the same level of competence, but that's what will be going through my mind."
Brophy stands alone in the cast for being, and we mean this kindly, renowned for talents other than her singing.
As it happens, she's lucked out there.
"Peculiarly enough, I happen to be able to sing the score as it is. I have the right sort of bass," she laughs.
Which doesn't easily lead us to the small matter of Beveridge's finger. He chopped the end off it a few weeks ago. A token gesture towards Captain Hook, perchance?
Nope. Mere accident. Not exactly a tip- top omen for his upcoming piratical feats, either.
"It'll be a while before it's healed," he reports, "but it's no longer causing me agony."
He's less concerned about swashbuckling-induced cuts than about cutting up in general.
"I just hope I don't get the giggles. I had a couple of moments on stage in Phantom of the Opera with one of the understudies. We looked at each other and suddenly it was frighteningly funny."
Yes, but a little genuine subterranean mirth is surely appropriate for such a merry show as Pirates?
"Mmm. Not a good thing in Phantom, though."
Not that the cast is feeling too terribly relaxed. There will be genuine nerves backstage, because there always are. It's all part of the fun, Beveridge says. Fun and neuroses. Actors are all neurotic and whatever the sheen on their ego they do independently fret about letting the side down.
Perhaps the redoubtable Henare can give him a few tips, we suggest, since he played the Pirate King more than once in his youth.
"He's done the king?" Beveridge interjects, with what seems more than mock dismay. "Oh God . . ."
For his part, Henare is looking forward to returning to a work that he enjoys not just for clever satire, but also lovely old- fashioned naughtiness. And there's nothing especially neurotic about the way he's seized with the need to do right by that joyously demanding Major-General song.
It's one thing to have learned it, but then there's the sheer mechanical task of getting it sung without your tongue inflating like a lifejacket.
"A lot of people want to hear those words again because they're so familiar with them," he says. "As the one in the block, I've got to get it absolutely right or someone will go 'oops, you missed a word here, a note there'."
Can't have that. And yet, demanding though the material can be, these are songs with such addictive qualities that that seem to want to be sung.
Henare and Hawthorne have just completed an extended Auckland Theatre Company production of the acclaimed, if rather less funny, Anne Boleyn, although anyone passing by the dressing room would have sworn they were preparing for a different show entirely.
The cast's veterans entertained themselves backstage by plundering the collective works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Not by way of preparation for this tour. It started off with just a snatch of one solitary song. But once you start, it's fiendishly hard to stop.
"Tell me about it," says Brophy. "I've got this running tape in my head now. Every moment from, waking to bedtime, if I'm not concentrating on something else it pops in and just loops itself . . ."
The Pirates of Penzance will be staged at Invercargill's Civic Theatre on August 26.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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