I had the great good fortune to see The Mikado last night at the English National Opera. I always delight in seeing the inside of a new theatre as well as the production itself, and this was my first visit to the London Coliseum.
Though it is a beautiful theatre I found its foyer and bar areas oddly imposing, like Baroque churches. But that was hardly relevant to the performance itself, and The Mikado is one of my favorite shows. You can never go wrong with a little Gilbert & Sullivan. Unadulterated exuberant silliness is, at times, simply the done thing.
And I deeply enjoyed this performance. The singing and dancing were sublime. This being a revival of the Jonathan Miller production originally staged at the ENO in 1986, the opera was not set in Japan but instead at an English seaside resort in the 1930s, with everyone swanning about in impeccable three-piece suits professing their feelings with cut-glass accents. (Or rather, there was some playful layering of these types of accents on top of other, more ‘of the people’-type voices.)
As The Mikado was originally intended as a farcical swipe at what could be called the sociology of British power structures, Gilbert set it in Japan to allow the right amount of distance between the institutions being satirized and the delicate sensibilities of the audience. As with every nation, Britain continually re-questions its notions of politics, class, and social convention. Resetting The Mikado in the 1930s brings the action closer to home but still allows the same sort of emotional buffer that lets questions about Society be raised without forcing the viewer to think that the criticism is directed personally. (Naturally this British soul-searching does not move me, as I am but a humble expatriate merely dwelling in these lands on sufferance.)
So, as I was saying, the singing and dancing was sublime. The sequence of beheaded jazz-hands bellboys was particularly effervescent. Suitable range from glee to gravitas was achieved by Nanki-Poo, Yum Yum, Pish Tush and Pooh-Bah. Katisha and most especially the Lord High Executioner were magnetic. I needn’t mention the characteristic use of ebullient language in the opera except to say that the cast approached it with aplomb and I laughed in all the right places.
Except one. For some reason, somebody must have decided that the madrigal “Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day” at the beginning of the second act was in some way lacking, and so instead of staging it simply with just the principals, a whole lot of pantomime to-ing and fro-ing was plonked in upstage while they sang. Maids teetered past under absurdly large piles of towels and got pulled into the lascivious Ko-Ko’s room, only to emerge dishevelled a few moments later. Granted, this added to the development of his character as a letch and a bounder and to the general ‘screwball 1930s seaside hotel’ atmosphere, but I felt these antics could have been fit in without undermining the simple beauty of that tune.
I also wasn’t overly fond of the set, done entirely in white. Various abstract pieces were laid about: musical instruments, an oversized gramophone, some large white spheres hanging from the ceiling that I think were supposed to represent planets. The cast was also outfitted entirely in black and white. At first the black-and-white theme was striking but after a while it became wearing on the eye, and there was nothing to visually distinguish the principals from the company, especially during the wedding scene when all the women were in white dresses.
I felt it was an especially poignant experience watching an entire musical about the problem of beheading people (or wanting to behead people) after coming from the Death exhibition at the Wellcome collection. Because The Mikado is principally a love story, we tend to forget about the blood, I think. But we do this at our peril, for it is impulses of death, violence, and censure in ourselves (if not the actual institution of capital punishment) that are some of the most powerful parts of this satire, not only the absurdities of courtship. Though these too are always and ever ripe for a skewering, as this production so successfully achieves.