1986 wasn’t a particularly memorable year in the grand scheme of things. In January Spain and Portugal joined the European Community (as it then was), in July Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey and in October Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the M25 motorway. I seem to remember spending a large part of it looking for a job. Nor was I the only one on his uppers: the English National Opera was going through one of its periodic financial meltdowns and badly needed a sure-fire hit to keep the bailiffs away. Fortunately Peter Jonas, then running ENO, had already met with Jonathan Miller to discuss a new version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado or the Town of Titipu’. The rest, as they say, is opera history.
Reportedly, Miller’s response when he and Jonas first toyed with the idea over dinner at the Camden Brasserie was: ‘it’s pure Duck Soup!’ He decided to jettison all the Japanese stuff which had plagued most productions, amateur and professional, since the D’Oyly Carte days. Out went the kimonos, kowtowing and tea ceremony, in came tuxes, Busby Berkeley dance routines and palm-court orchestra. The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s all-cream set locates the action to a swish resort hotel circa 1930. Sue Blane’s costumes are equally opulent and there are numerous changes: the ENO wardrobe department must work flat out on Mikado nights. The resulting all-singing, all-dancing crowd-pleaser still packs a perennial punch.
Bestriding this revival like a Colossus, as he has done for nearly thirty years, is Richard Suart, whose Ko-Ko (‘The Lord High Executioner’) channels Max Wall and Leonard Sachs from the Good Old Days in a richly comic performance. Suart freely admits that the role has been the backbone of his career and has now written a history of the production, ‘Mikado Memories’. He gets strong support from Andrew Shore as Pooh-Ba and Jonathan McGovern as Pish-Tush, while Sir John Tomlinson, more used to Wagner than to G&S, dons the Mikado fat suit. Also deserving of mention are the romantic leads, Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Nanki-Poo) and Soraya Mafi (Yum-Yum); I particularly enjoyed their pitch-perfect singing of the first act duet, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’. And the ENO orchestra, chorus and dancers are all splendid, of course. For the rest, everyone knows Yum-Yum’s self-congratulatory ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ or Ko-Ko’s arch ‘Willow, Tit-Willow’ but how many people remember Princess Katisha’s moving lament ‘Alone, and Yet Alive’, beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard?
Truth be hold, Gilbertian Topsy-turvydom does start to wear a bit thin with me after a while, nor is it quite compensated for either by Marx Brothers slapstick or high-kicking chambermaids, although there’s comfort to be had from what must be some of Arthur Sullivan’s best musical numbers. And without doubt Miller’s is a helluva production which should be good for a few seasons yet.
By convention, this Mikado regularly updates Ko-Ko’s recital, early in Act One, of his names of potential victims – ‘they’d none of ’em be missed!’ High on the list this time (Suart writes it himself) are Raab, Rees-Mogg, Bojo, Bercow & Brexit, all of which had them rolling in the Coliseum aisles. It’s a timely reminder that this evergreen favourite is no more about Japan than Brexit, when you really come down to it, is about Brussels. They’re actually both about us.
Header image: ENO The Mikado 2019, Cast, John Tomlinson, (c) Genevieve Girling