The chaos of love and identity – do we love people or our ideas of them?
Patience has only loved one person in her life, while the maidens’ and dragoons’ love seems changeable by the minute. How easy is it to slough off identity? What is a fad and what isn’t? What is hipsterism?
‘For she is blithe and she is gay’, four lovesick hipsters sang last night in envy of Patience, the barista at their university milkshake café – and as it happened, they weren’t wrong. In director Cici Carey-Stuart’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, gender and sexuality were, compellingly, not a source of conflict. Instead, what got in the way of love was differences of aesthetic.
Originally a satire of the late 19th-century aesthetic movement, Patience commented upon the fads and pretentiousness of the day, personified by ‘fleshly poet’ Reginald Bunthorne (think Oscar Wilde). Bunthorne in Carey-Stuart’s production was an Instagram poet and influencer with tens of followers, including four real-life followers, the aforementioned lovesick hipsters.
What exactly ‘hipster’ and ‘mainstream’ meant was confusing at some points – the hipsters were definitely hipster in the style of the early 2010s, wearing flannels and skinny jeans, drinking lattes and listening to vinyl.
Satirising these fashions in the same way as the blue china and velvet knee-breeches of the original aesthetes seemed a little strange, given that things that used to be hipster, like Instagram and flower crowns, are now either universal or recently bygone trends. However, the lyrics and libretto of Patience had been expertly changed to fit in these modern references and were funny and memorable in the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way as Gilbert’s original words. Personal favourite adaptations include ‘You’re about as commonplace a lesbian as ever I saw,’ and ‘Away, away, and to your milkshakes go!’
One thing that Carey-Stuart’s production did really well was to help make sense of some of the plot’s more confusing quirks. The genius introduction of one character as a beautiful trans woman made it much clearer why Patience, her childhood friend, didn’t recognise her on first sight. The lovesick hipsters’ declaration that ‘it’s the very hopelessness of our love that binds us together’ made sense in the age of social media fandom, when your whole friend group can have an intimate knowledge of Reginald Bunthorne without ever having spoken to him. Joseph Folley owned the stage when ‘alone and unobserved’ as Bunthorne, clearly the supreme hipster in a massive flannel shirt. Raffling himself off to be married, though, came across a bit odd in the 2019 setting, however appropriately chaotic it was.
The small cast sounded lovely when in harmony with each other, backed by Musical Director Andrea Seaton and her orchestra, and Sylvie Hodgson Smith’s Patience had such a beautiful soprano voice that it would be wrong not to say so here. Lady Jane’s (Katie Green) song at the beginning of Act II, lamenting how quickly fashions change, made one of the central questions of Patience clearer to me; how easy is it to slough off an aesthetic if it’s a part of our identity? The plot rewarded Jane for remaining a ‘good old-fashioned hippie’ throughout, but why? The chaos of love and identity brought to the fore in this production of Patience, which asked: Does anyone really love Bunthorne, or is it just his aesthetic…?