Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Touring until July 2
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which stages the famous Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, is one of the most resilient companies in all of the performing arts. Established by G&S’s patron, impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, in the late 1870s, it seemed to have shuffled off its mortal coil when it was disbanded in 1982.
However the company was revived in 1988, and has produced work sporadically since then; most recently, a 2013 staging of The Pirates Of Penzance, in a co-production with Scottish Opera. So fruitful was that collaboration that D’Oyly Carte and SO are working together again, this time with a joyous and clever presentation of G&S’s much-loved and satiric light opera The Mikado.
First staged at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1885, The Mikado may seem to the enlightened 21st-century theatregoer like an exercise in dubious Victorian Orientalism. After all, the titular Mikado, ruler of Japan, is visiting a town called Titipu, in pursuit of his son, Nanki-Poo.
The town is populated by absurd characters with such un-Japanese monikers as Poo-Bah (the corrupt man of many high offices), Yum-Yum (the young object of Nanki-Poo’s affections) and the noble lord Pish-Tush.
However, look beneath the surface dodginess and you will find that this opera is a well-crafted satire. Targeted as resolutely at Victorian Britain as Gogol’s The Government Inspector is at Czarist Russia, The Mikado depicts a topsy-turvy world of arbitrary power and ludicrous legislation.
In Titipu flirting outside of wedlock is a criminal offence. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, took the job in the belief that he wouldn’t actually have to execute anyone. Meanwhile Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, can be relied upon to receive financial “insults” in order to consult with himself and come to the required decision.
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s delicious production puts the satire of British mores and politics front and centre. This is most immediately apparent in the ingenious costumes by designer Dick Bird, which are a delightful collision of the upper-class garb of Victorian London and classical Japanese attire. Bird’s brilliantly over-the-top, cartoon Orientalist sets provide a suitably silly backdrop.
The performances themselves are universally excellent. There is fine acting and singing from Nicholas Sharatt (a lovable Nanki-Poo) and Rebecca Bottone (a comically vain Yum-Yum). There are equally impressive performances from Stephen Richardson (the jocular but capricious Mikado), Andrew Shore (a wonderfully farcical Poo-Bah), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Katisha, the Mikado’s witch-like “daughter-in-law elect”) and Ben-McAteer (splendid as Pish-Tush).
No-one in the fine cast shines brighter than Richard Suart, who has made the role of Ko-Ko his own over many years. His playing of the decidedly squeamish state executioner is a comic joy, not least in his famous song I’ve Got A Little List.
The ditty was dragged into infamy by Peter Lilley, then Social Security Secretary, who used G&S’s song to offer his own list to Tory Party conference in 1992. Those who “never would be missed” included travelling communities, “bogus” asylum seekers and working-class single mothers.
Evans’s production restores the lyric to its original, broadly satirical intent. Politicians of all stripes come in for a gentle kicking, as do tax avoiding multinationals, car manufacturers who lie about their vehicles’ emissions and, most delightfully, the “tax dodgerists” whose names appear in the Panama Papers. There are jolly outings for other well-known songs, such as A Wand’ring Minstrel I and Three Little Maids From School Are We.
This is a Mikado that deals intelligently and sensitively with the opera’s politically incorrect baggage. It also stages G&S’s satire with tremendous colour and humour.
For tour details, visit: scottishopera.org.uk
An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 15, 2016
© Mark Brown