Nineteen eighty-six wasn’t a particularly memorable year in the grand scheme of things. Spain and Portugal joined the European Community (as it then was), Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the M25 motorway. If memory serves, your humble reviewer spent most of it looking for a job. I wasn’t the only one under the cosh: English National Opera was going through one of its periodic financial meltdowns and stood in dire need of a hit. Fortunately Peter Jonas, who was 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, when Jonas first put the idea to Miller over dinner at the Camden Brasserie his response was: ‘it’s pure Duck Soup!’ He decided to jettison all the Japanese stuff, de rigueur in most productions, amateur and professional, since the D’Oyly Carte days. Out went kimonos, kowtowing and tea ceremony, in came tuxes, palm-court orchestra and Busby Berkeley dance routines. The late Stefanos Lazaridis’s all-cream set locates the action to a swish resort hotel sometime during the 1920s or early 1930s. Sue Blane’s costumes are equally opulent and there are numerous changes: the ENO wardrobe department must work flat out on Mikado nights. It’s all-singing, all-dancing, and we’re a long way from Titipu, that’s for sure.
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’s supported by 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 rendering of the first act duet, ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’. Everyone knows Yum-Yum’s self-congratulatory ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ and 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? And the ENO orchestra, chorus and dancers are all splendid, of course.
Truth be hold, Gilbertian topsy-turvydom does start to wear with me after a while, not quite compensated for either by Marx Brothers slapstick or high-kicking chambermaids, although Sullivan’s music is as joyous as ever. But without doubt this is a helluva production and 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 Titipu 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