The screw may twist and the rack may turn: the Tower of London, in Jo Davies’s new production of The Yeomen of the Guard, is a dark place indeed, and that’s as it should be. ‘Men may bleed and men may burn,’ intones Dame Carruthers, as she delivers a magic lantern show about the history of the Tower, complete with colour slides of famous beheadings. In The Mikado Gilbert uses capital punishment as a particularly spiky punchline, but in The Yeomen of the Guard, sentence of death has been passed before the curtain has even risen. The shadows are lengthening from the off, and even Sullivan’s cheeriest melodies have a dying fall. Davies compares the resulting blend of gaiety and melancholy to Twelfth Night, and for my money she’s nailed it – the point being, as Colonel Fairfax explains, that ‘it is easier to die well than to live well’.
Davies updates the story to the 1950s, and Anthony Ward’s designs move the action indoors, with daylight sloping through bars and portcullises only as a poignant reminder of a world beyond the walls. We see the Yeomen off-duty and in undress; proud but ineffective old soldiers ‘with the sun of life declining’, and one smart aspect of the updating is that the really serious and unpleasant duties are carried out by prison warders in WAAF-type uniforms. No postcard mock-Tudor here; the White Tower is not even glimpsed until the end of Act One, where it’s a ghostly and weather-beaten apparition against dark John Piper skies: ‘a sentinel unliving and undying’. (The lighting, by Oliver Fenwick, is one of the glories of the show.)
The cast, meanwhile, is very fine – as it has been throughout ENO’s series of G&S revivals. Richard McCabe is the jester Jack Point; here a battered but not (yet) broken variety comedian, handling some of Gilbert’s most self-aware dialogue with a deftness and emotional conviction that compensated for some distinctly seat-of-the-pants singing (the Coliseum acoustic is merciless on non-classical voices).