The Arts

The Stratford Adventure Part III: The Pirates of Penzance

The Stratford Adventure Part III: The Pirates of Penzance featured image

Our film and sometimes theatre critic Marc Glassman recently spent a week at the Stratford Festival. This is the second of his three reviews. 

A weekend at the Stratford Festival is always an adventure in theatre going, with a challenging diversity of productions to attend. It seems appropriate for this review to evoke the title of the NFB Oscar-nominated ‘50s documentary that chronicled that fabled first year, 60 years on. Tyrone Guthrie is long gone but the drama, imagination and integrity of the festival is still marvellously evident in this, an anniversary year. And so is the range of material on offer, from a new Canadian production to an elaborate re-staging of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera to the comparatively rare mounting of a late play by the festival’s inspiration, Shakespeare.

The Pirates of Penzance

Ethan McSweeney, director
W.S. Gilbert (libretto) & Arthur Sullivan (music)
Starring: Kyle Blair (Frederic), Sean Arbuckle (Thomas, the Pirate King), C. David Johnson (Major-General Stanley), Amy Wallis (Mabel), Gabrielle (Ruth, Frederic’s nursemaid), Steve Ross (Police Sergeant), Naomi Costain (Edith)


Pirates of Penzance is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s great hits and it’s an obvious choice for one of Stratford’s light entertainments. The choice of Ethan McSweeney to direct the production was a masterstroke by Artistic Director McAnuff. The director, still only in his mid 40s, brings a youthful effervescence to this production. In recent years, I’ve seen McSweeney’s sensual production of Dangerous Liaisons at Stratford and a wonderfully autumnal staging of The Glass Menagerie in Chautauqua, New York and found them to be well thought out, well staged, emotional statements.

Here, McSweeney and his set designer Anna Louizos, have been inspired by Steampunk design to create a weirdly modern evocation of Victoriana through the eyes of fantasists like Jules Verne. The pirate’s ship seems ancient and curiously post-modern simultaneously. So does the attitude of most of the cast, whose high- spirited approach to Gilbert’s libretto is loving but filled with a sense of parody. Particularly funny and romantic is Sean Arbuckle as the Pirate King and Major-General Stanley’s “mostly beautiful” daughters who seem delightfully aroused at the prospect of becoming the brides of pirates.

McSweeney stages the show vigorously, with athletic dancing and occasional moments of slapstick. The romantic tale of indentured servant Frederic’s love for Mabel Stanley, and the various circumstances that come between them, serve as minor distractions to this happy, tuneful production. If Gilbert’s narrative becomes less inventive towards the end of the play, there’s always Sullivan’s music to keep matters moving forward nicely. Pirates of Penzance is admittedly Stratford-lite—but it is a sure-fire audience pleaser.

Part I:Hirsch

Part II: Cymbeline

Photo | Members of the Company | Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

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