Jonathan Miller’s The Mikado returns once more to ENO but is showing its age

04/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Chris Hopkins (conductor). London Coliseum, 2.11.2019. (JPr)

Sir John Tomlinson (The Mikado) (c) Genevieve Girling

Production:

Director – Sir Jonathan Miller
Revival director – Elaine Tyler-Hall
Set designer – Stefanos Lazaridis
Costume designer – Sue Blane
Lighting designer – Davy Cunningham (rev. Mark Rosette)
Choreography – Anthony van Laast (rev. Carol Grant)

Cast:

Mikado – Sir John Tomlinson
Nanki-Poo – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
Ko-Ko – Richard Suart
Pooh-Bah – Andrew Shore
Pish-Tush– Jonathan McGovern
Yum-Yum – Soraya Mafi
Pitti-Sing – Sioned Gwen Davies
Peep-Bo – Kitty Whately
Katisha – Yvonne Howard

Perhaps things are best left unwritten however I cannot hold back from commenting how watching The Mikado – even in Jonathan Miller’s revered staging – created in me a certain unease. In 1986 when it debuted the world was a different place, we still had Benny Hill chasing scantily clad girls and few would raise an eyebrow about white actors portraying Black, Latino or Asian characters on screen or in the theatre. In the 1980s ‘whitewashing’ meant, well, painting with whitewash and ‘colour blind’ casting was a long way off. The Mikado is also an uneasy mix of love, law and decapitation; however, the modern audience will remember all the beheadings by Islamic extremists in recent decades.

The story involves a proclamation by the Mikado that flirting should be considered a crime worthy of death and is set in the fictionalised Japanese town of Titipu. Many will point at The Mikado – one of the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas – as a caustic satire about Victorian society and the government at the time it was written and composed. I accept that the Japan we are presented with is too much of a caricature for what we see to truly be about Japan. Opportunities are taken to assure us the characters aren’t Japanese and at one point we hear Ko-Ko (the Lord High Executioner) tells the Mikado that Nanki-Poo’s name ‘might have been on his pocket handkerchief, but the Japanese don’t use pocket handkerchiefs’!

However, in the intervening years since The Mikado was first put on at the Savoy Theatre in 1885 white actors have often taken on its Asian roles whose names are the very essence of G&S;  Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, Poo-Bah, and Pitti-Sing. The Mikado is not easy to disentangle from its roots that includes British colonialism and a patronising attitude to everything ‘exotic’ during the late-nineteenth century. Parts of Sullivan’s lightweight score derive from the melodic modes of Japanese music – most notably in the Entrance of the Mikado and Katisha in Act II – and many lines and whole scenes have a Japanese setting in mind. To ‘sanitise’ The Mikado modern directors relocate the story and attempt to strip away any overt references to Japan and this probably all stemmed from Miller’s 1930s English seaside hotel. The problem is that G&S is treated too reverentially – even in the ENO programme – when it is not ‘high art’ and is merely a forerunner of any number of Broadway musical comedies. Ideally – as happens with many operettas from the same period – Gilbert’s text should mostly be jettisoned, and everything rewritten for a twenty-first century audience.

Stefanos Lazaridis provided a stylish cream and white set that is steeply raked at the rear allowing some visual humour as heavily laden chambermaids struggle up and down it. Sue Blane’s costumes are all monochrome and the hotel is populated with tap-dancing maids and hotel porters, as well as, top hatted monocled toffs and St Trinian’s-inspired schoolgirls. A major influence according to the programme was the Marx Brothers’ films of the 1930s. However, what we get in the now laboured farce of The Mikado’s umpteenth revival is as far removed from the Marxes sublimely surreal anarchism as it is possible to imagine.

I first saw this Miller production thirty years ago with the late great Alfred Marks as the Mikado and – believe it or not – Bill Oddie was Ko-Ko! The spontaneity and energy I am sure they must have brought to their roles then has obviously dissipated over subsequent years. Where was a Groucho – who appeared as Ko-Ko in televised 1960 The Mikado – when you need one; or a Chico, or a Harpo? Looking around at a comfortably filled London Coliseum there were people old enough to be there with me in the late 1980s, or who knew their G&S much better than I do. Unfortunately, there was little laughter even from those who knew the jokes were coming, even though the cast got some strong applause at the end.

To their credit the entire ensemble – several employing accents that could cut glass – threw themselves into some frantic action with gusto. The combined age of the veterans in the cast must have been more than the 14 ‘domestic staff’ listed. The performance did have something about it that reminded me – at different times – of what a local am dram group or a music college might put on. You could see the commitment of all concerned – in their second performance of the day – but the harder they tried for laughs, the less successful they were.

‘Master of Ceremonies’ was Richard Suart who has been virtually ever-present as Ko-Ko, apart from the initial run when Eric Idle sang the role. His repartee and patter are not as quick-fire as they were and in the post-#MeToo world some of the innuendo seemed a little seedier than before. The Lord High Executioner’s ‘They’d none of ’em be missed!’ little list of potential victims included all the usual current suspects, such as, the Sussexes, Wags, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Geoffrey Cox, John Bercow, not forgetting BoJo’s alleged encounter with his pole dancer and – nudge-nudge, wink-wink – mentions of his ‘floppy disk’ and ‘hard drive’.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas brought an attractive wide-eyed innocence to Nanki-Poo (The Mikado’s son who is laying low as second trombone in Titipu’s town band) but despite a pleasant opening ‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ his singing did not always have the lightness of tone operetta requires. Soraya Mafi was very appealing as the sassy – if rather fickle and somewhat vain – schoolgirl Yum-Yum who Nanki-Poo is in love with. Her Act II aria ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’ was exquisite even though it seems to belong to another work entirely. The couple’s mock-romantic duet in the first act (‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’) – when Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum think about flirting even though it is against the law – was an absolute delight

Andrew Shore is a superb character baritone but wasn’t entirely at his ease as the officious Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else), while Jonathan McGovern was a good-natured Pish-Tush, a noble. Yvonne Howard’s Katisha was in full on Margaret Dumont mode (Groucho called her ‘practically the fifth Marx brother’). She was slightly nonplussed by what was going on around her, yet resolutely indomitable in her pursuit of Nanki-Poo. Howard’s resplendent tones were heard at their best in her plaintive ‘Alone, and yet alive’, another odd aria for a work like this. The Mikado himself only gets a short, fat-suited, waddling-on appearance during the second act and it was Sir John Tomlinson celebrating his 50th role with ENO. (Apparently when he was a student, he was a member of the Manchester Universities Gilbert and Sullivan Society.) His diction was as crystal clear as ever and his voice is boomingly intact, however, it still sounds somewhat Wagnerian rather than suited for G&S. Also, I couldn’t shake from my mind how much he looked, as the Mikado, like Orson Welles in old age.

The ENO Chorus were on lusty form throughout and Chris Hopkins conducted the orchestra that got into the spirit of things after a leaden start. Throughout I felt he sensitively accompanied some of his singers giving them more time to get their words out than Sullivan would have intended and occasionally tempos became becalmed.

However, all this is just my opinion and if G&S is more your sort of thing than it is mine now, you will probably have great time.

Jim Pritchard

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