ENO’s very English comedy with new victims on the little list
I first saw The Mikado – replete with multiple encores of every popular song – a long time ago. I believed it was all about Japan and I loved it – it was my second opera and, as I was five at the time, my naivety might be excused. Somewhat more bizarre was the decision of the Lord Chamberlain in 1907 to ban performances indefinitely – on the grounds that it might be offensive to the Japanese. The ban lasted six weeks.
Thank goodness the Lord Chamberlain’s writ didn’t prevail for long. Mind you, The Mikado would certainly be considered offensive (and doubtless ban-worthy) if anyone thought to perform Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular piece today to the libretto as originally penned by William Schwenck Gilbert. Around five years before my introduction (59 years ago actually) to the world of a Japanese ruler whose object all sublime was to make the punishment fit the crime, two of Gilbert’s songs were doctored to remove the N-word – originally, I believe, for fear of causing offence to American audiences.
Nowadays, the lady, in the Mikado’s song, who dyes a chemical yellow or stains her grey hair puce, ‘is painted with vigour’. It was not always so. And, since 1948, Ko-Ko’s little list of society offenders who might well be underground (and who never would be missed) has traditionally included (on the suggestion of AP Herbert) ‘the banjo serenader and others of his race’. Not in WS’s original!
So there’s absolutely no reason why the Lord High Executioner’s list of offenders – which also included ‘that singular anomaly, the lady novelist’ – ripe for execution should not reflect today’s prime candidates. Which in Saturday’s umpteenth revival of Jonathan Miller’s sumptuous production at the Coliseum includes those who claim beach volleyball’s a true Olympic sport, Lance Armstrong, Lord Leveson, Alex Salmond, corporate tax dodgers (Starbucks is on the list), Pooh-Bah Patten, that MP who’s no longer a celebrity, the Speaker’s wife who practises trial by Twitter, the House of Laity – ‘they’re such misogynists, they never would be missed’ – and, oh yes, one David Cameron.
The wonderful Richard Suart has been English National Opera’s Ko-Ko for 25 years, so by now he should know who should be on that list! He is an integral part of the furniture of Miller’s 1986 production, set in the unreal grandeur of an English seaside hotel in the 1930s. It may have served for longer even than the ancient D’Oyly Carte productions, but it was my first acquaintance with it and it looks a dream! The characterisations are genuinely funny. I couldn’t make much sense of Pish-Tush’s strange accent (a bit hard on poor David Stout, who deserved better), but the plummy cut-glass English of the principal protagonists was a joy in this sparkling comedy of English manners, mores and hypocrisies.
Mary Bevan’s delicious Yum-Yum was a dead ringer for Kylie Minogue – easy to understand Robert Murray’s Nanki-Poo falling for this flirty little girl from school – and I couldn’t decide whether Richard Angas’s larger-than-large Mikado was more Robert Maxwell or Robert Morley. Donald Maxwell’s Pooh-Bah (Lord High Everything Else), who was Chief Rabbi as well as Archbishop of Titipu, was yet another pleasure, as accomplished as any Sir Humphrey Appleby when it came to offering merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. I think Ko-Ko’s done rather well for himself with Yvonne Howard’s Katisha and Suart’s heartfelt tale of the lovelorn willow had little difficulty turning his tit. David Parry kept the whole enterprise bubbling.
I was brought up on G&S and grew tired of the formulaic way the D’Oyly Carte company, who had a monopoly, staged this glorious canon. But the Savoy operas are a magical introduction to the wonderful world of grand opera. Long may ENO continue to revive Miller’s offering (he deservedly received the biggest cheer of the night on Saturday) and afford new generations of impressionable youngsters a glimpse of the glories of G&S and the rest.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.