Two Mikados are on show in London this holiday season, neither of them playing Gilbert & Sullivan straight. In Highgate, the Gatehouse venue presents the jazz rewrite Hot Mikado, whilst here at the Orange Tree in Richmond, director Chris Monks revives the production he created in 1995 for another in-the-round theatre, the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Here I find myself at a particular advantage: as a Northern Irishman with no interest in sport, the rituals of Englishness depicted in Monks' version are as alien and exotic to me as the parody japonaiserie of G&S was to the comic opera's original audience. For Monks has set it on a cricket pitch.
There's a wealth of clever comic detail in the staging. The "wandering minstrel" Nanki-Poo arrives dressed as an Aussie grunge kid, with dreadlocks cascading from his baseball cap; when he reveals himself as the son of the Mikado and doffs the cap, the locks come away with it. The girlish Yum-Yum and her associates, "three little maids from school", are in gym kit and wielding hockey sticks, clearly an upset to the order of a well-maintained crease. The trio who face execution in Act Two (as per the laws looked up in a volume of Wisden) are, magnificently, dressed as a giant set of stumps ready to be bowled out.
The requisite contemporary rewrites of Gilbert's patter songs, too, are up-to-the-minute and sharp. Those on Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko's "little list" include Robert Kilroy-Silk and (at some length and with some vehemence) people who don't turn their mobile phones off during shows; the Mikado's own vow "to let the punishment fit the crime" cites Internet spam by coupling "penis extension" with "Star Trek convention", and the rhyme for "political junket" may be readily guessed.
What's never really addressed is a reason for the staging. Of course Gilbert & Sullivan were satirising the English, by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar cod-Oriental setting; portraying them instead in such a characteristically English environment seems distinctly leg-before-wicket. The jokes about the differences of being Japanese are reduced from knowing irony to absurd sarcasm. Still, Monks and his company of XI, including Paul Bentall as Pooh-Bah and Sophia Ragavelas as Yum-Yum (how on earth would he have cast this production if the musical of Brighton Rock this autumn had done well?) are both tuneful and chucklesome. But if you look too closely at the rationale behind it all, you might end up muttering, "How's that?"
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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