Cath Barton is in Newport to review Welsh National Opera’s Rhondda Rips It Up!, celebrating the life and achievements of Margaret Haig Thomas.
Looking round the audience it was clear that the citizens of Newport had turned out in force to celebrate one of their own in the première of Elena Langer’s new cabaret opera. Rhondda Rips It Up! styles itself as a ‘thigh-slapping romp’. In commissioning a libretto from Emma Jenkins to be set to music by Langer, Welsh National Opera’s David Pountney asked for a party rather than a sermon to celebrate the life and achievements of the Newport suffragette Margaret Haig Thomas.
Also known as Lady Rhondda, an inherited title, Margaret fought for decades for the right of women to sit in the House of Lords. Surviving the sinking of the Lusitania, in 1920 she set up the extremely influential political and literary magazine Time and Tide, and was its editor until her death in 1958, using her wealth and privilege to support left-wing and feminist causes. In 2011 a large portrait of her was hung in the Lords opposite a smaller portrait of Lord Birkenhead, an opponent of women’s suffrage who as Lord Chancellor prevented Margaret from taking her seat.
If this doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy, there turned out to be plenty of scope for exploring it in Margaret’s life. As with all the best comedy, it proved in this show to be a triumphant vehicle for serious issues, and the way in which WNO has put the suffrage movement on stage is itself an emancipation.
It 2003 Mark Rylance, as Artistic Director of The Globe Theatre in London, mounted what he called a ‘Season of Regime Change’. It featured single gender casts, and, most memorably, an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew. Writing in The Guardian in that year, Rylance talked of “helping to realise the enormous potential of actresses who face diminishing opportunities as their expertise and life experience grows to maturity.”
Further all-female productions followed in the theatre. Opportunities for all-female productions of existing opera are more limited, given voice limitations, although in 2001 Opera Femina was founded as the UK’s first all-female opera group, touring in that year with Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Earlier this year there was a suggestion made in the media that female singers might take on tenor roles as their voices age, but as Jennifer Johnston responded robustly in The Guardian, the real need is for a more inclusive industry.
Rhondda Rips It Up! has an all-female cast, orchestra and creative team. Russian-British composer Elena Langer wrote the music for Figaro Gets a Divorce in WNO’s 2016 Forever Figaro season, and has produced a similarly eclectic score for this show embracing cabaret, operetta, vaudeville and music hall. Her scoring is similarly eclectic; the 10-piece band includes accordion, tuba and trombone and trumpet alongside strings, saxophone and drum kit, allowing for a huge range of instrumental colour.
Langer has written the music is such a way that the voices and instruments together encompass the full range of sound, high to low – in other words you do not miss the male bass register in the voices. She has also – oh, and I wanted to clap and cheer at this – orchestrated in such a way that the words of the singers are at the same time supported and wholly audible. Of course the exemplary diction of the singers was also a crucial contribution to this.
The libretto, by Emma Jenkins is sharp and sometimes saucy. There are a lot of ‘fancies’ in what is sung and spoken about, both in relation to cake and sex, but never in a way that demeans women.
The direction, by Caroline Clegg is clean and clear and the choreography by Kay Shepherd slick, both enabling the cast to shine. Written specifically for the women of the WNO Chorus, Rhondda Rips It Up! has given them a chance to show off their skills in ways which ‘normal’ chorus work rarely does. Some of the women have named solo parts, but all have parts to play throughout, as both women and (in minor roles) men. They were without exception superb. Anitra Blaxhall stepped out of the ensemble to take the role of Helen Archdale, who became Margaret’s lover and collaborator on Time and Tide. The melismas of her aria ‘All trembling in my arms Aminta lay’, to words by the seventeenth-century poet Aphra Behn (England first successful female writer) were delicately sung, a suitable wooing.
Madeleine Shaw was strong-voiced and believably charismatic in the role of Margaret Haig Thomas, moving from being light-hearted to serious, and from determined campaigner to besotted lover and back again, embracing musical styles from G&S to torch song with equal conviction.
Lesley Garrett plays the role of the Emcee in the style of the real-life music hall entertainer Vesta Tilley. This was spot-on casting – she is a stunningly-good character actor, as she also demonstrated in the male roles which she doubles.
Lara Booth’s neat design features a backdrop of suffrage-style banners and wooden panelling which not only evokes the interior settings well but also serves to provide openings for various pop-up characters.
The band are part of the action, sitting upstage on a raised area. Nicola Rose conducts with brio; at a certain point she turns to announce the change of scene to the doomed ocean liner, the Lusitania, to gasps from the audience. The band is immediately transformed into a Palm Court Orchestra and Lesley Garrett comes on to sing the ‘My Girl’s Pussy’. Yes, as risquéas you think. And never mind that it postdated the sinking of the ship, written as it was by Harry Roy in 1931; this was clearly too good a song to pass over as part of the eclectic mix!
Also included is Ethel Smyth’s ‘The March of the Women’, the anthem of the suffrage movement. When Margaret takes her supporters on their first march they sing this, and we were suddenly in surround sound as members of the WNO Community Chorus stood in the audience behind us to join in, to stirring effect, as they did in the final chorus of ‘We Won’t Surrender’. I was just sorry they did not reprise this at the curtain call and encourage the audience to join in as our programmes asked us to do!
WNO’s Youth and Community Department have explored the suffrage ‘Deeds Not Words’ slogan in a range of outreach work surrounding this production. As part of this, Operasonic worked with drama and music students from Newport’s John Frost comprehensive school to devise a programme of songs about issues that concern them, both girls and boys. The words and music were all written by the young people themselves. Featuring a gender-bending performance from Welsh National Opera’s chorus member Gareth Morris (turning the male impersonation in Rhondda Rips It Up! on its head) this was a lively curtain-raiser. It was a pity that it overlapped with singing in the foyer by the WNO Community Chorus, though great to see such a buzz in The Riverfront, with camera crews in there as well, making a documentary for the BBC.
Rhondda Rips It Up! is a tremendous show, very funny, very tuneful – and it was very moving to see the line-up of women on stage at the curtain call. Margaret Haig Thomas would have loved it.
Welsh National Opera’s Rhondda Rips It Up! is touring in Wales and England until 20thNovember
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her novella The Plankton Collector will be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com