It’s 25 years since I first appeared at this joyous festival, masterminded then, as now (in the noble tradition of Glyndebourne and Bayreuth) by the indefatigable energy and vision of one family. I had just been coming to the end of a long tour playing Ko-Ko with D’Oyly Carte in 1996 when the Smiths asked me to play Robin Oakapple in Philadelphia and Buxton in the exalted company of veteran D’Oyly Carters. What a glorious summer it was, Ken Sandford being detained at US customs for having a suspicious number of outlandish costumes in his luggage notwithstanding.
In the intervening quarter century a whole generation of Smiths has sprung up with a convenient diversity of skills calculated to enhance the family business – in production, graphic design and photography as well as in singing – and now I’m the veteran, still delighted to be at the party. But the world has also moved on and we live in an age intensely alert to the potentially offensive, which not only makes it almost impossible to choose politically acceptable victims for Ko-Ko’s Little List, but to perform The Mikado at all.
To point out that Gilbert’s satirical target is the English, not the Japanese (there have been calls to ban all productions except those with entirely Asian casts) is of no interest to those guarding against Cultural Appropriation. Those guardians could take advantage of the fact that Gilbert’s intention was to ridicule, not condone or celebrate, the cultural appropriation, by 1880s Londoners, of all things Japanese but political movements have always distrusted comedy as too slippery and ambiguous, literally not serious enough, and it is the wearing of Japanese costumes that is the insurmountable objection. For the record, I personally have never been required to wear Japanese make-up in any of the three thousand performances I have given as Ko-Ko and as early as 1985 I was in a production (rewritten by Ned Sherrin) set in a London of the future that has been bought by the Japanese. Katisha, Countess of Grantham was the gorgon and Neil Kinnock was lampooned as Pooh Bach. Not a kimono in sight and it worked triumphantly.
In an interview Jonathan Miller gave for a television series I made some years ago he pointed out that The Mikado has nothing to do with Japan, that ‘the names – Nanki-Poo, Pitti-Sing – are English potty-training names’ and that anyone who wants to do it with kimonos and fans, ‘needs serious psychiatric help’. Our production this year changes nothing in the text (apart from, walking on eggshells, Ko-Ko’s list) or, I hope, in the urgency of its farcical energy but all the characters are evidently English; smug, self-important ex-pats strutting in ‘some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’. It is, as Gilbert always intended, critical only of the English.
When I was playing Ko-Ko in Sydney, the Australian author of a one-man play about Grossmith, which he had written for John Reed, took me out to dinner and asked me if I would perform it, with the result that I played it in the Festival in 2003. Jeff Clarke, who directed it, suggested that a two actor play might have more flexible dramatic horizons and wrote his wonderful Nightmare Songs, which he and I played at the festival (and on two extensive tours) a couple of years later. I’ve come full circle with Grossmith’s own The Diary of a Nobody, for though there have been stage adaptations before, with casts of varying sizes, I felt a Talking Heads format would suit it best. With its understated narrative humour, the book sits somewhere between Jane Austen and Alan Bennett and we learn more about Pooter’s naïve snobbery and constantly frustrated attempts to live in dignity and rectitude by reading between the lines of his own blinkered perception, than by having it spelled out to us by other characters. Gilbert may have accused Grossmith of unsubtlety in his performances but Grossmith’s writing is a miracle of subtlety and wit.
I arrived as an undergraduate at Cambridge knowing only two of the G&S canon but a second-hand record stall in the market soon changed all that. Patience was the first addition and has remained one of my very favourites ever since. I played Bunthorne while still at Cambridge and recorded it with D’Oyly Carte fifteen years later. I was honoured and delighted that the great conductor and champion of G&S, Sir Charles Mackerras, listened to that recording and asked me to sing the role under his baton at the BBC Proms. If The Mikado pokes fun at fashion victims, Patience turns poking fun at them into Hilarious High Art. Any Art, however high or low, relies on devoted fans and devoted fans can be fickle. For perhaps differing reasons, two poets, battling the onslaught of unsought feminine devotion, are equally distraught at the thought of losing it. Add toxic masculinity’s attempts to understand that non-binary has nothing to do with Maths and once again, Gilbert and Sullivan prove that their satire is as miraculously topical as ever. Gloriously costumed in traditionally Aesthetic designs, rapturous maidens are kept at a safe social distance from those preposterous poets who so little deserve their devotion.
Making a virtue of necessity, the chorus for these two productions will be socially distanced from each other and the action, using the Victorian stage magic of lighting and gauzes, which will bring audiences as full a production as possible while still accommodating (unlike cabinet ministers) the ever shifting government goalposts.
Tickets to the National G&S Opera Company’s Mikado:
Buxton Opera House
Sunday 1st August at 2:00pm and 7:00pm and Wednesday 4th August at 7:00pm // https://buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/event/the-mikado
Harrogate Royal Hall
Sunday 8th August at 7:00pm, Saturday 14th August at 7:00pm and Tuesday 17th August at 7:00pm // https://gsfestivals-tickets.gsfestivals.org/shows?tag=mik