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After four plunges into the Underworld with four Orpheuses, some farcical Gilbert and Sullivan seems the perfect change of pace.
Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Mikado is the closest thing to a dependable West End musical staple for the ENO. His version of the ever-popular operetta was a controversial new take in 1986, with Eric Idle’s Ko-Ko updating the ‘Little List’ libretto and birthing a whole new tradition amongst other things. Now past its 200th performance, things feel a touch tired.
Richard Stuart is a consummate Ko-Ko, having donned the Lord High Executioner mantle so many times he could do signings at a convention (and indeed does after the show, with many fans queuing up outside the Coliseum’s bookshop) but this is not necessarily a good thing. He flies through the wordy libretto with veteran nonchalance and the clean diction needed for Gilbert’s tongue twister pace is not quite there. Like a greatest hits singalong, familiarity on the audience’s part bridges the gap to full enjoyment.
The chorus sings competently even if at times vocal clarity fails to win out against the orchestra in the pit who under Chris Hopkins, give a perfectly solid rendition of Sullivan’s bouncing score.
On the other hand, Soraya Mafi stands out as fresh-faced Yum-Yum. In her young lover role alongside fellow Harewood Artist Elgan Llyr Thomas, she hits her soprano marks with lightness and ease. The musical highlight of the night is revered bass John Tomlinson as the larger-than-life Mikado. Sonorous and commanding even in his fat suit, his understated acting is a welcome addition even if Tomlinson does appear dangerously out of breath in his opening ‘A More Humane Mikado’.
The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s 1920’s grand hotel set cleverly creates expansive corridors, the use of skewed perspective allowing for fun upstairs-downstairs background skits with French maids pulled into tiny hotel room doors. Other than this though, the lobby set is too static. Tap dancers in Sue Blane’s neat bellboy outfits try to fill the space but the unchanging, all-white decor leaves the eye wanting more and given it’s such a seasoned set, a fresh lick of paint wouldn’t go amiss in certain places.
Anthony van Laast’s choreography, here led by Carol Grant is vaudeville fun at its best but with everything kept so light and slapstick, the “underlying vein of seriousness” in The Mikado, the contrast Sullivan insisted was essential to all his work, is diluted during the more poignant arias such as ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ or ‘Alone and Yet Alive.’
This production therefore loses some of the punch but this might be a symptom of something larger. One must look at Miller’s 40-year-old staging to examine a problem if there is one, rather than this latest ENO rendition.
The Mikado has taken so many iterations its developed contradictory aspects within itself. Miller’s decision to move away from the Japonaiserie made sense for a modern audience, as did the move towards a quintessentially English Bournemouth, given it was never really about Japan, as Miller stated in 1986 but “about the English class system… as English as Buckingham Palace.” But this means the G&S operetta currently exists in a strange limbo, safely sanitised of its outdated Japanese stereotypes, the colourful kimonos of Titipu bleached to monochromatic suits but with a libretto still full of Japanese references and Gilbert’s Orientalist gags. Additional exclamations in faux Wodehouse accents – “but this letter is in Japanese!” make the humour difficult to land without anything visibly Japanese on stage. This run has continued for so long that only those familiar with a previous generation of Savoy and D’Oyly Carte productions will understand the game of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too that Miller is playing.
After enjoying almost half a century in purgatorial safety with Miller’s quite literal white-glove treatment, perhaps audiences should either be trusted enough, and opera houses be brave enough to stage The Mikado with all its outrageous original trappings, as Gilbert himself took such pains to adhere to. Otherwise the libretto should be radically reworked to the same degree as the visuals, moving Titipu somewhere else, somewhere firmly not-of-this-world. Until then the town will have to carry on with its white smiles, white suits and white sets.