Martin Milnes is the director of the first fully staged professional revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke in over a hundred years. In April the show will open at the Finborough Theatre in West London and we caught up with him to ask how its all been going, what his aspirations for the piece are and how excited he is to be at the helm.
“I will answer you truthfully, master – I have a slight cold, but otherwise I am quite well …” That’s a quote from a Gilbert and Sullivan show. Ten points if you can name which one!
Pirates of Penzance [poor guess I imagine] – What is it that attracts you to Gilbert and Sullivan?
I grew up with it as a child and when I started acting and singing professionally one G&S job led to another … It seems that once you’re on the G&S “circuit” you never leave, no matter how many non G&S jobs you have between times! Gilbert’s use of language can have you roaring in the aisles or weeping into a hanky. Coupled with Sullivan’s music, which is infectious and never less than first rate, their works are truly entertaining and have stood up to the greatest judge of all – the passage of time.
What can you tell us about the play?
The Grand Duke is the only one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas that has never been professionally revived – until now at the Finborough Theatre. It contains one of Gilbert’s most outrightly comical plots … When a theatrical troupe in a fictional European country plan to overthrow the tyrannical Grand Duke and install themselves as the leaders of the realm chaos ensues! There’s a song about sausage rolls, and characters cavort around on stage in Ancient Greek togas consuming numerous bottles of Pommery ’74! Not to mention multiple weddings in the second act … to the same hapless man!
The farce-like comedy is very different to any other G&S show and to my mind has become more embraceable to an audience in the 21st Century than perhaps it was to Gilbert’s original audience in 1896 … Which makes it a very exciting rediscovery.
How will it work in the small space at the Finborough?
Instead of an opera company’s cast of thousands we only have a total cast of nineteen – although that’s still a large number for the Finborough! Each ensemble member is a character in their own right – there is no “faceless chorus”. The intimate space actually lends itself well to the piece, and the sound of everyone singing together – bearing in mind that the voices of this cast are used to filling opera houses with a vast orchestra – should be quite something to hear!
You’ve worked for the Carl Rosa Opera Company how does this compare to that experience?
It’s been my pleasure to perform in various shows for Carl Rosa Opera, including their West End season at the Gielgud Theatre. Their shows are wonderful and are very loyal to the original productions in terms of look and structure. I’ve learned a lot from Carl Rosa about the theatre in general, not just Gilbert and Sullivan.
However, this Grand Duke isn’t going to be quite as traditional as a Carl Rosa production. When you’ve got a song about sausage rolls its crying out for “Carry On” style treatment! Having said that, the production should hopefully satisfy both the traditionalists and the lovers of the more avant garde! Our cast members range from people like Bruce Graham – a member of the original D’Oyly Carte and a Carl Rosa veteran – to actors like young Robin Rayner, whose dance skills have just taken him to Abu Dhabi and seen him performing high kicks in the UK tour of “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” – and his abilities are most definitely being utilised in “The Grand Duke”.
Your cast list includes many leading names from the Gilbert and Sullivan world. What attracted them to this project?
Probably the fact that nobody’s done The Grand Duke before. We’ve been very fortunate in securing people like Richard Suart, who has played the patter roles all over the world. Our Musical Director John Owen Edwards is a G&S specialist and was MD for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for several years. And then there’s Bruce Graham, Charlotte Page, Sylvia Clarke, Victoria Byron and Martin Lamb who all have a big G&S following. Interestingly, our ‘Ludwig’, Stefan Bednarczyk, isn’t as regular a G&S performer as some of the others, but he does appear in Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan film “Topsy Turvy” as Sullivan’s musical assistant, Cellier.
Is this your first attempt at directing?
It’s the first full scale theatrical production I’ve undertaken, although I’ve directed a TV pilot prior to this. I also co-directed my own show “The Falsetto” for the Edinburgh Festival and various other venues, including The Pheasantry in Chelsea.
How are you finding the challenge of being the man with the plan?
It’s extremely rewarding to see something come together that started as just a vision in my head last September. It does, however, become an all consuming task so ultra dedication to the project is paramount.
If you could direct any play at any theatre what would it be?
There’s a number of shows I’d love to direct but I’m not going to name them as I don’t want someone to read this and beat me to them in the meantime!! Suffice to say that there are several musical gems which are long overdue for a revival and I’d be very interested in bringing them to the stage. As for theatres – so many to choose! The Finborough has been great to work with. I do, however, have a soft spot for the Buxton Opera House having performed there several times … But my favourite stage of all can be found in Thursford, Norfolk, where I’ve had the joy of performing many times in the Thursford “Christmas Spectacular”. That stage is over 100 feet wide but they always manage to fill it with something thrilling.
I love the Buxton Opera House, I played Wilfred Shadbolt there at the festival, wonderful space! Whats the best thing you’ve seen at the theatre?
The Thursford “Christmas Spectacular” for one! I’ve watched it as well as performed in it, and it has to be seen to be believed. More recently in London I adored “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, and “The Art of Concealment” at Jermyn Street was fantastic.
Who is your favourite actor?
Claude Rains tops the list of actors. He was mesmerising in anything he did. His performance in “Mr Skeffington” is heart breaking. Anton Walbrook is a hugely underrated actor – watch him in “The Red Shoes” (my favourite film) – in which he gives a truly powerful characterisation. Roger Livesey, Charles Chaplin and Jack Benny should also be mentioned. As for the ladies it’s Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Deborah Kerr … All wonderful, versatile and timeless. My greatest inspiration, however, comes from the actress Jean Bayless – the original West End ‘Maria’ from “The Sound of Music” in 1961 – a true star and incredible talent from whom I’ve learned a very great deal.
The Grand Duke opens on 16th April and though it has sold out additional dates are being added so keep checking the website – Click Here
We would like to wish everyone at the Finborough all the best for the production and to say a massive thank you to Martin for his time and honesty.