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Peter Goffin's Designs

In 1939, Rupert D'Oyly Carte asked Peter Goffin to design new sets and costumes for The Yeomen of the Guard.

He would later remark:1

Having previously regarded the unique world of Gilbert and Sullivan opera as a fixed star in a changing theatrical firmament, the possibility of altering any of its familiar features had hardly occurred to me. In common with many others, I had supposed that its continuing life depended on the perfect preservation of the physical form in which it had been realised three-quarters of a century ago. Here was something already shaped and determined, always on view, to be revered, ridiculed or merely ignored; but surely immutable. With this conception of the subject, I felt as if I had been asked to redesign the Albert Memorial.

The fact that the D'Oyly Carte Company have retained for themselves a monopoly of professional stage performances in this country has given rise to the popular assumption that their interpretation of the operas must be in every respect the original one; and certainly most of the large and loyal following of people who continue year after year to pack the theatres visited by the Company, firmly believe this to be the case. In truth, however, during the period of twenty years between the wars, Rupert D'Oyly Carte staged no less than fourteen productions of the operas with new costumes and scenery. When he succeeded his father, Richard D'Oyly Carte, as director of the Savoy Company, he saw that, apart from the essential spectacle of the Soldiers, Sailors, Tower Warders, Peers and Policemen in their traditional dress, there was nothing in the conventional appearance of the original productions that need to be preserved.

In the case of The Yeomen of the Guard, the original stage spectacle of 1888 had remained virtually unchanged. Even when Percy Anderson, who had dressed the piece for Gilbert, revised his work about thirty years later, he made no appreciable change in the nineteenth century style of presentation. In view of the more serious nature of this opera, with its romantic theme and almost tragic implications, the conventional staging struck me as being dramatically ineffective, both as a visual interpretation of the given time and place, and as a practical frame in which to shape the action. It was therefore with the intention of meeting these requirements that I started my own design.

By means of a pictorial drop-curtain, illustrating the Tower of London, to be exhibited during the playing of the overture music, I suggested something of the shape and colour of things to come, and opened the correspondence of sight and sound. Moreover, having thus established the physical nature of the entire scene in advance, I freed myself from the restriction of actual representation in the form of the stage setting itself.

 

The play opens with the acting area reduced to a small inset, resembling a room in the Tower. By means of this device, the incongruous effect of using the full stage for the intimate scene between Phoebe and Wilfred isavoided. The scarlet curtains which mask the inset anticipate the colour of the Yeomen's uniforms that will eventually dominate the stage.

 

The main setting, in which the rest of the opera is performed, is an arrangement of architectural forms suggesting the massive and sombre character of the fortress. Its various levels and areas are planned to facilitate the action and grouping of the players. The scale of colour values is determined by the grey of the stone and the vermillion of the Yeomen. Against these, the predominant colours of the citizens' costumes are graded in order of dramatic importance from cool, low tones for members of the chorus to more emphatic hues for the principal characters. As the action proceeds, the various dramatic harmonies are constructed.

The new set and costumes were first seen in Edinburgh on 5 January 1940 and first seen in London at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith later that year. The use of the inset scene was later discontinued, but it would make occasional reappearances.

1. The Studio, June 1955.

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