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Bridgerton meets bedlam: 4 reasons English Eccentrics is a must watch

Imagine the love child of Monty Python and a high-camp Jane Austen.

Then, you might start to grasp the insanity and unexpected poignancy of our upcoming production English Eccentrics. Based on the 1933 novel by Edith Sitwell, English Eccentrics introduces you to 39 outrageous misfits during regency England in a series of vignettes, from aristocrats and clergy to maids and tradesmen.

Here are Artistic Director Stuart Maunder’s picks on what makes this off-the-wall opera a rare diamond.

1. It is a rare opportunity

This will be the first ever professional performance of English Eccentrics in Australia, despite its consistent popularity with audiences each time it has been performed.

Malcolm Williamson AO (Hon.) CBE (1931-2003) was an Australian composer who, like many of his peers, left the country to nurture his musical talents in the UK. When English Eccentrics debuted in England in 1964, it was a hit. Yet, the opera was never published and has unfairly remained largely unknown to Australian audiences. The reasons why are shrouded in rumour and mystery.

Some say the opera was hidden because others were jealous of Williamson’s success (Williamson was, for instance, commonly referred to as the “most commissioned composer in Britain”). Others say Australians resented Williamson for abandoning the country to become a success in England.

Whatever the reason, Victorian Opera’s production of English Eccentrics has been lovingly, but arduously, pieced together from a range of sources, from handwritten notes to sketchy recordings.

2. An off-the-wall comedy with moments of poignancy

English Eccentrics is one of those unexpected productions that manages to reach into your chest and play havoc with your heart. Its stomach-clutching laughs are matched by sentimental moments that make you question what it means to be “normal”.

As Williamson puts it, his characters are “all ultimately unacceptable to others”. He may well have been talking about himself as he, too, was famously eccentric, the subject of controversy and gossip, and had many sexual liaisons with both men and women.

Edith Sitwell put it best in her book:

“Eccentricity exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation. This eccentricity, this rigidity, takes many forms. It may even, indeed, be the ordinary carried to a high degree of pictorial perfection.… Any dumb but pregnant comment on life, any criticism of the world’s arrangement, if expressed by only one gesture, and that of sufficient contortion, becomes eccentricity.”

Black and white portrait of Malcolm WIlliamson writing at a desk, cigarette in his hands
Australian composer Malcolm Williamson

3. Unearthing bright young stars

The VO Emerges program encourages and supports emerging singers, composers, designers and directors. Notably, the cast of English Eccentrics includes this year’s Victorian Opera Emerging Artist Prize winners, Michaela Cadwgan (soprano) and Douglas Kelly (tenor).

The vast range of characters in English Eccentrics gives these artists the license to shine brightly, to take their characters and have an absolute riot – and their energy is infectious.

4. Like a painting brought to life…

English Eccentrics’ incredibly theatrical set and exquisite costumes could be an event of its own. The set will transport you to many locales: a dusty backstage, the pristine English countryside, Hyde Park, the Bank of England, a flea-infested pensione in France. Its hand-painted backdrop of skies appears straight out of a John Constable painting.

The artists are adorned in regency chic with a flair of colour and creativity (and the odd depravity). Postcards with the array of costume designs will be available for purchase at the event.

To quote from the libretto:

“This is ‘Goose weather’ when ‘even the snow and black fingered clouds seem like old theatrical properties. This dust heap, this mountain of dust. The giant dust heap of the world.”

English Eccentrics: 4-6 July