There was no better place for the Welsh National Opera to begin a UK tour celebrating the story of pioneering suffragette, Lady Rhondda, Margaret Haig Thomas, than Newport’s Riverfront theatre on Thursday evening.
Much of Lady Rhondda’s activities as a businesswoman and active suffragette took place in Newport over a century ago, including the infamous blowing up of a post box and it seems her activities and life still hold a lot of interest, as a full audience turn-out displayed.
Elena Langer’s Rhondda Rips It Up is an all-female cast production that literally does what it says in its title. Rhondda along with other suffragettes ripped up the rule book in an era dominated by male chauvinism and overturned many chauvinistic attitudes, including helping get the 1832 Great Reform Act reversed in 1918, so women could get the vote they were rightfully entitled to.
Rjondda Rips it Up could also be termed in the sense of having a celebratory party too. Taking the basis of a music hall scenario, the production smashes any preconceptions of the word “opera” and combines comedy, choreography with music that mixes light, shade and tone by taking the audience back a century via a meticulously produced production that is rife with Chaplin-esque comic visuals.
Rhondda Rips It Up commences with the all-female WNO orchestra arriving on stage led by their conductor Nicola Rose. All musicians are suitably attired in Edwardian dresses with their hair tied up, into neat buns, taking the form of an eccentric period chamber orchestra. Their charismatic personalities murmur as they prepare for the show creating a warm stage atmosphere which sets the scene for the ensemble casts arrival.
The chorus headed by the wonderfully eccentric Master of Ceremonies, (played with verve by Lesley Garrett), get the celebration underway as they describe the work of Lady Rhondda and her contemporaries, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, through song and tight choreography.
Miss Garrett’s soprano voice is effectively put to use, as is the beautiful Welsh choir vocals of the ensemble cast, allowing the pieces to vary and fluctuate. Later, there are further moments when the chorus receive support from strategically placed choir members sat within the audience. This creates a surround sound effect that really pulls the audience into the atmosphere, as the ladies of the chorus wave their flags and raise their voices to the heavens.
Miss Garrett’s master of ceremonies morphs into other male roles throughout the presentation, which enable her to demonstrate a fabulous ability for visual comic performance. One role includes that of Thomas’ husband, Humphrey Mackworth in gamekeeper attire with a gun, shooting his prey as they appear from behind secluded doors inset into the set’s grand wall panels.
This leads neatly into a scene in which Lady Rhondda (Madeline Shaw) holds a tea party with fellow suffragettes Sybil (Rosie Hay), Lottie (Catherine Wood) and Prid (Paula Greenwood) bemoaning her loveless marriage but been expected to fulfill a basic role as a wife. The scene transforms into a hilarious comparison of sexual awakening and erotic symbolism when a collection of books on the psychology of sex by Henry Havelock Ellis are delivered. This moment of where opera meets comedy sets the tone and pace for the rest of the production with visual’s flowing neatly with musical dialogue.
Madeline Shaw as Lady Rhondda mixes comedy, drama and song performance to great effect, while bringing a strong sense of believability to the role. Miss Shaw’s scenes are a pleasure to watch including her plotting with Prid to build a bomb from chemicals, which takes an even more comical turn when they return to Newport to hide them under a mobile Blackberry Bush.
Similarly, the ensemble cast all take on numerous roles from portraying members of the Women’s Social and Political Union to portraying stuffy chauvinistic males. The magic here is that it’s all done with the tongue firmly placed in cheek. Think, if the Monty Python team had consisted of women playing men on occasion and you get a strong idea on how high the visual comedy bar is. All this is complimented with Edwardian period costumes from policemen to politicians, of which the latter sport magnificent Mad Hatter stylized face masks representing Asquith (Louise Ratcliffe), Churchill (Carolyn Jackson), Lloyd-George and Birkenhead (Monika Sawa) who respectively keep us in touch with the political attitudes of the era, adding a wonderfully surreal edge to the proceedings.
Rhondda’s intimate exchanges with Helen (Anitra Blaxhall).in Act Two are also quite moving, as is her sense of bravado when leading other women to survival as she travels to America on the RMS Lusitania which is subsequently sunk by a German Submarine following the outbreak of the first World War.
Composer Elena Langer and Librettist Emma Jenkins music is very in keeping with its period early 20th century era and is alive and passionate. While the production borrows Harry Roy’s comical double entendre laden number My Girl’s Pussy (sung by a top hat and tailed Lesley Garrett with the orchestra performing an authentic jazz style) the music and lyrics throughout the production are similarly cheeky which generates pure honest belly laughs. These include Brazilian samba flavored Time and Tide (performed by Miss Shaw and Miss Blaxhall as an apparent impromptu piece) and the ensemble “It’s Big, Black and Beautiful” (referring of course) to the first ballot box women could vote with).
A celebration of a very unique lady, Rhondda Rips It Up is a wonderful introduction to the world of opera.
Personally, I never realised the medium could be so enjoyable. Colourful, vibrant and lots of fun, while informative at the same time Rhondda Rips it Up gets my vote as one of the most exciting theatre productions of 2018.
Rhondda Rips it Up continues to tour around the UK during June and July. Further details can be found at the Welsh National Opera website wno.org.uk