Cynthia and Gertie go Baroque with Purcell at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Willow Productions presents:

Written and performed by:
Helen Moulder – CYNTHIA
and Rose Beauchamp – GERTIE

Directed by Jeff Kingsford-Brown
Design/Lighting/Stage Manager – Deb McGuire
Costumes – Janet Dunn
Theatre and Puppet Makers – Struan Ashby,
Anna Bailey, Rose Beauchamp

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Wednesday, 13th December, 2017

(until 23rd December)

Firstly, a note of thanks to Cynthia Fortitude and Gertie Rallentando – Thank you both, for your indefatigable energies and your irrepressible buoyancies! Together, you were as a matching pair of Courtenay Place street-lamps to our sensibilities throughout the intoxicating journey upon which you launched us, offering support as well as illumination! Your concerted efforts generated such refulgence, shining forth from within the textures of one of the masterpieces of English music, Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”.

Cynthia and Gertrude are hell-bent upon performing a version of Purcell’s renowned work which charmingly as well as outrageously brings it all the more to life for present-day audiences. In fact one of Cynthia’s most telling and candid observations of the evening came towards the end of the show, her remark being that it was probably lucky that Purcell had been dead for four hundred years in view of what she and her colleague Gertie had wrought upon his most famous musical and dramatic work, over the course of the presentation.

Though raising a laugh, it was a piece of tongue-in-cheek repartee which perfectly and ironically accorded with the documented fact that Purcell’s librettists for many of his vocal and theatrical compositions gave him extremely rudimentary and at times uninspired material to work with – to the point where a contemporary of the composer’s, the satirist Thomas Brown, versified thus at the time:

“For where the Author’s scanty words have fail’d,
Your happier graces, Purcell, have prevail’d”.

Also, the librettist Nahum Tate, who adapted the “Dido” story from an episode in Virgil has come in for some damning criticism over the years, summed up by the following verdict of a modern-day commentator – “Little enough of Virgil remains (in the opera) – Dido is drastically simplified, and Aeneas is made into a complete booby. And the sense of cosmic forces at play is replaced by the machinations of an outrageous set of Restoration witches” (Joseph Kerman “Opera as Drama” 1988 University of California)

So, taking the advice of a literary genius who proclaimed “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, Cynthia and Gertie lost no time in cutting to the dramatic quick by adroitly revitalising the identities of the characters in the original story. Here, we encountered not Dido and Aeneas, but “Diana” and “Andy “as the ill-fated lovers, and with chaperone Amanda (rather than the maidservant, Belinda) ready at a moment’s notice to “unbottle and dispense” support and advice as if it were on tap. So, it was pretty much “instant update – just add water”, and with the help of the vernacular, away we were whirled on our dramatic journey!

But wait! – we wouldn’t have entrusted our evening’s entertainment to the unknown so easily without first assuring ourselves of the likelihood of these performers being able to “deliver” the goods, still – after all, anybody can put on costumes and don wigs and pirouette randomly around and about the stage, lip-and-finger-synching to music already being played. True, the immortal duo’s previous show “The Legend Returns” has already become a living classic, having made its way into the most distinguished annals of New Zealand’s theatrical history – but after twenty years, were the old instincts and impulses still firing on all cylinders? Did the flame still burn as brightly and energetically in those theatrical bosoms? Could Cynthia and Gertie still do it?

It took but a few moments to reassure us that all was as real and earnest, realigned and refurbished, as before – Gertie with her introductory harpsichordic displays of prestidigitation, and Cynthia with her congenitally “grand manner” and gesturings appropriate to a “practitioner of rallen-tando” swept up our sensibilities and lost no time in absorbing us in the business of their on-stage preparations . Cynthia primed her audience up superbly, charming and reassuring those whose front-row seats would normally have given their occupants grave concern at having “greatness thrust upon ’em” at any given moment and providing the rest of us with suitably inscribed flash-card response indications – you simply knew where you were with these two in charge!

So, we were given an invaluable Janus-faced view of proceedings, being party to these (sometimes surprising) preparations, as well as enjoying the pleasures of their ultimate fruition, thrills and spills included! Tempting though it is for me to here reproduce some of the choicest moments of the entertainment, it would be a pity to spoil their delightful surprise value! – without giving too much away, I might mention the highly-diverting and all-too-human use of performer-enhancement aids, with Cynthia (bless her!) in need of an occasional “pick-me-up-and-redirect-my-befuddlement” pill! – and the use of a puppet-theatre and its suitably recontextualised puppet figures to crystallise the opera’s action.

Helped further by a racy reworking of the all-too-prosaic original libretto, Purcell and his (renamed) characters were able to live again in their extremely visceral glory, thanks to the energies of our two star writer/performers, and the support they garnered from various quarters – flowing direction from Jeff Kingsford-Brown, suitably atmospheric set design and lighting from Deb McGuire, and lavishly resonating costumes from Janet Dunn. Then there was Struan Ashby’s charming puppet theatre, complete with figures  fashioned by Anna Bailey and Rose Beauchamp herself.

I should add that further support came from a suitably and skillfully-coached audience – after we’d survived a querulous “What are you doing here if you’re not auditioning for our show?” moment from Cynthia, we really came into our own in the Witches’ scene! In fact, our contributions, in the finest baroque fashion, were actually divided into parts rather than left as a kind of mindless unison!

Before concluding, I can’t resist letting slip the merest smattering of the libretto’s updated raciness, simply for sharing’s sakes! – and as the Trojan hero Aeneas seemed to come off worst as a character in Purcell’s original, it was only fitting that he was given more of his dues in this presentation – by way of preparing us for his puppet-entrance, the already-entranced Queen told us that “He’s genetically engineered /so he’ll be marvellous in bed”. Alas, as befits a modern operatic playboy, the eponymous hero, after accessing his hacked online updates, suddenly expostulated “Receivership? – I’ll have to run! I’ll have to get away! I need an exit strategy today!” Well, you get the idea!

It remained for the spurned Carthage Queen to bemoan her loss, and, bereft of love and hope, accept her time-honoured fate as one who died of a broken heart. Such were the conflicting emotions brought into play by Cynthia and Gertie recasting this scene as either one of the great comic tragedies or, alternatively, tragic comedies, I was and remain gobsmacked at the outcome’s cathartic effect! – I may even have to go the show again! What I do remember is that we in the audience, having a participatory role in the grand peroration, were caught up in it all to the extent that when the divine Cynthia indicated to us her “encore” flash-card and the irrepressible Gertie took the lead we capitulated like lambs to the slaughter!

Whoever similarly takes the plunge and “Goes for Baroque” with these two stellar performers, Helen Moulder and Rose Beauchamp, will be similarly transported, their appreciation of Baroque opera enhanced, perhaps even beyond the point of “no return”.

One thought on “Cynthia and Gertie go Baroque with Purcell at Circa Theatre

  1. Germana Nicklin says:

    Loved the show, so thanks for your marvellously entertaining review, in the spirit of the performance.
    For me, this was pantomimesque without the cringy bits. Perfect for this time of year.

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