Judith Butler tells us that gender is a performance. If that’s the case, then the cast of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ put on the show of a lifetime. Brought to the stage by the director of the renowned ‘All-Male HMS Pinafore’, Sasha Regan, it was certainly an evening for laughter – be it genuine or slightly nervous.
This, because the origins of ‘The Mikado’ go hand in hand with what might be called colonialist racism. When it opened in 1885, the play was performed by white actors in mock-Japanese costume and yellow-face makeup. Thankfully, Regan’s production team carefully side-stepped any racial gimmicks, but I can’t help but wonder if they couldn’t have done without the bastardised Japanese names, such as those of Yum-Yum (Alan Richardson) or Nanki-Poo (Richard Munday).
Nonetheless, ‘The Mikado’ remains the most popular of the Savoy Operas, and it’s not hard to see why. The production, full of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan tropes of mistaken identity and love pentagons, is unique in its vividness, its spontaneity, and its charm. It’s a play that comes across as humorous on paper, and hilarious on stage. The audience watched in laughing disbelief as the men sashayed across the stage in their tactically shortened boy scout uniforms, singing impressively high sopranos, and taking their self-aware ridiculousness to its extreme. Jamie Jukes as Pitti-Sing was particularly good, posing every time he spoke to display his frankly quite shapely legs.
The fact that the production was all-male helped to cloak the more problematic aspects of the opera. By making already farcical characters into cross-dressing bimbos, Regan further caricaturises the play, so that the audience focuses more on the men than the supposedly Japanese women they embody. Though I worried that it might contain elements of mockery of cross-dressers or drag kings and queens, the play stands in a genre of its own self-deprecating humour.
The actors are introduced to us as boy scouts, camping in the woods. It’s unclear at what stage they become the inhabitants of the fictional realm of Titipu, leaving the audience puzzled and somewhat dazed for much of the first act. Savoy Opera, with its endless musical numbers and over-the-top acting, can be hard to immerse oneself in if the plot is unclear. Some clarification as to why the audience is watching boy scouts transform into heel-clicking drag queens could have helped.
That said, as soon as I understood what was going on, I was completely swept away. It’s clear that the production is incredibly well-rehearsed, as each gag hit with perfect timing. The comedy was in the details, such as Katisha’s (Alex Weatherhill) furious bike pumping and the recurring use of catchphrase blackboards by Ko-Ko (David McKechnie). Slapstick only tends to work when perfectly executed, and almost everything in this production hit the mark.
As can be expected from a Gilbert and Sullivan play, the music was both excellent and somewhat grating. Though at times incomprehensible, the cast’s voices were very impressive – particularly Richardson’s trilling soprano.
Performances of note came from the lead couple, of course, but also from Ross Finnie as Pooh-Bah, whose unapologetically corrupt bureaucratic demeanour really spoke to the nature of every character as a total imposter. Ko-Ko, as executioner, couldn’t kill a fly if he wanted to; Yum-Yum is as shallow as an inflatable swimming pool; the Mikado (James Waud) is fearsome, but treats crimes such as dyeing one’s hair as capital offences.
Despite the confusing start, the production is enchanting and hilarious. For those familiar with the ‘all-male parody’ trope, this is a reminder of why it’s so funny to watch men prance around like women; for those new to it, it’s a slippery slope from ‘The Mikado’ to reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was phenomenal.