Rachel Middle is a very familiar face at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival and has appeared in numerous productions including SavoyNet Performing Group, Peak Opera productions and the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. In 2014 she won “Best Female Performer” for playing Mercury in ‘Thespis.’ Rachel is the director and founder of professional Forbear! Theatre and came heroically to our aid when the Ploverleigh Savoy Players had no option but to cancel their participation in this year’s Festival.
Forbear! Theatre will perform Iolanthe in The Royal Hall, Harrogate on Thursday 9 August at 7.30pm.
Rachel is a very busy lady and attempting to lead about nineteen lives simultaneously but she took the time out to talk to us this week. And very interesting it was too!
Hello Rachel and may we say how delighted we are to have Forbear! Theatre performing at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in August. You have certainly had great success since founding the company in 2015. Can you tell us a little about Forbear! Theatre and how it all came about?
Hi Janet! I actually wanted to do a production of Ruddigore and the company formed as a result. Sooner or later everyone involved with the original project faded away and I was left as a sole producer and director for an off-west end show! It was terribly hard work and I had to learn a lot very quickly. The company is still very young and small and I’m not sure which direction I’m taking it, but I’m very happy to have done the shows I had, and that each was better-planned than the last! The fact that William Remmers (also a very familiar face in Harrogate) is involved as the MD for most of my productions is a great help, as he has his own company in New York.
How are you preparing for Iolanthe and can you give us some indication of what you are aiming for with the piece?
The most difficult thing is coordinating the lives of 18 busy people- preparing for this creative project has mostly involved angrily constructing excel spreadsheets and then helplessly staring at them. For this production, even though text and story-telling are of great importance, I’m focusing mostly on beautiful movement and stage pictures from the chorus and principals. We are a theatre, not an opera, company, and our strengths as a company come from our combined skills and how sharply we think and move. We really want the audience to have fun seeing our show and with that in mind there are a few surprises, but our aim is to entertain, not to be controversial.
You obviously have a passion for Gilbert & Sullivan. When did you first get to know the shows and start performing in them?
I saw my sister play Peep Bo in a production of The Mikado at Nottingham University in 2003, and I loved it! When I then went to university (St. Andrews) myself I immediately joined the G&S society and did my first show, Princess Ida, as alto chorus. I then played Buttercup and Ruth, and after that musically directed and directed for a year. I think there’s something very magical about the combination of Gilbert and Sullivan; my favourite thing about them is that many of the characters are not explicitly defined, so as an actor and director you can largely put your own spin on them and still very much tell the story.
Do you have a favourite role?
Overall Julia because she has a fun arc to play, but vocally I don’t find her the most satisfying. Elsie also has a lot of potential to be a fun role and she’s also vocally challenging; I very rarely see people inject frivolity into Elsie and it’s so lovely when they do because it breaks your heart later in the piece. I’ve never played Rose but I would love to have a go purely for her hilarious exchange with Dick Dauntless in Act I. I think my answer is that I can find something satisfying in every role and I feel very privileged that I’ve been able to play so many of them!
And a favourite show?
My favourite show is the Grand Duke but it’s because it’s a bit rough in places and needs a lot of care to get right, so you can be very creative with it. I don’t believe there is another show in the canon where the chorus are invested as much in the situation as the principals (we ALL think we’re going to die at the end of Act I!) and that makes it hugely exciting.
It has been said that “the cruel misogyny of many G&S’s plots make their operas increasingly unpalatable in today’s age”. You have described yourself a strident feminist and we would be extremely interested to know how this sits with your feminist perspective? Do you feel Gilbert sometimes went too far in portrayal of the older woman particular?
12 of the operas I personally have no issue with. The alto is usually old and has lost value in the eyes of the other characters as a result of being old, or ugly, or fat, or all three. On the surface it looks like Gilbert is going down a very understandable path of using tropes rather than specifically-thought-out characters to fill his operas, and one of those tropes is the funny old un-loved woman. It gives his pieces something in common and makes his work very marketable, because people go along knowing what to expect. I don’t think, however, that Gilbert was promoting or encouraging the view that women lose value as they age, and I doubt his choice of who to include in his operas was in any way malicious; he was only hoping to entertain his audiences with what was accessible to them at the time. In fact, thinking particularly of Lady Jane and Katisha, we get two very naked arias about the fears and challenges of growing older, or loving someone you are not supposed to. Gilbert was forcing his audiences to hear the voices of women who society ignores, which is quite daring even today if you think about it. What makes those arias even more powerful is the appearance of total strength and power both of those characters have in public- even the strongest of us feel weak and terribly sad at times. Apart from the odd line here and there that makes me cringe, Gilbert involves women largely in the same way as men; they are complicit in plots and have normal human conversations with each other. The sopranos are often a little air-headed, but then so are the tenors! For example the wonderful ridiculousness of the plot of The Mikado almost requires Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo to both be quite…simple characters. All of his characters, male or female, are equally capable of intelligence, deceit and using their charm to get what they want, and considering he was writing at a time when women had almost no rights at all, I find that remarkable.
I do find Princess Ida troubling, but since Gilbert was using another’s story I don’t see it too much as his brainchild.
We know only too well about the challenges of running a professional theatre company and think you are extremely brave to set up Forbear! Theatre. What plans do you have for the future of the Company?
Thank you! Mercifully I only have to deal with 8 or 9 people at once so it is not as much of a logistical nightmare as a full opera cast. My plans for the future are quite uncertain; it’ll be really useful to get some feedback from the audience we will have at the festival because often it’s difficult to identify our own strengths and exactly what we should use to proceed. I love theatre in general and there are so many straight plays I would like to do.
We understand that you are a keen figure skater. Is it true that you are planning an opera/burlesque act on ice? It sounds fantastic!
I think there may be a flaw in this plan somewhere but I haven’t hit on it yet.
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival is 25 years old in August. Do you have a message for our celebrations?
I am thrilled the festival is still going after so long. I really encourage festival goers to come with an open mind and be prepared to see the operas with fresh eyes. Art should evolve over time and I believe Gilbert would be thrilled with people updating and putting new spins on his work, as long as the original material is respected for what it is. Every time we furiously argue about something G&S related it means we are still talking about G&S, so let’s keep fighting! Perhaps at the 50th anniversary Utopia Limited will be performed on the actual moon, not just set on it. I think NASA should make that a priority.
Rachel. Thank you for time and we can’t wait to see you and Forbear! in Harrogate in the summer.
Thank you, Janet, see you in Harrogate!