Three little maids remade: Jonathan Miller’s Mikado at the ENO

This Mikado succeeds where every other version I’ve seen has failed, because it constantly reminds us that Gilbert and Sullivan were first and foremost creating a satire, not a musical comedy.

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In my darker fantasies, there is a parallel-universe version of Desert Island Discs. As the guest, I would get to nominate the eight pieces of music that I would like to maroon in permanent obscurity, their master copies strewn on an idyllic beach, blanched and rendered unplayable by the heat of the sun. I would also get to pick one to be put in a special lead-lined safe and buried beneath the sand, to ensure it was never, ever heard again. My choice for the latter? The 1950 D’Oyly Carte recording of The Mikado.

I have despised Gilbert and Sullivan’s most enduring operetta since I was eight, when I was forced to wear a homemade kimono and a full face of white geisha-esque make-up to play one of its “little maids” in a school production. The twee, knowing humour, the stilted dialogue, the irritatingly catchy melodies, the pointlessly elaborate plots full of slapstick ruses – it has become my musical bête noire. There is also always the lingering sense that the comedy is partly predicated on an uncomfortably orientalist view of Japan. In 1885, when the work premiered, audiences will have been laughing as much at the hilarious “foreignness” of characters with names such as “Nanki-Poo” and “Yum-Yum” as they were at their theatrical antics.

Jonathan Miller’s hugely popular staging of The Mikado, almost 30 years old and revived now by the ENO for the 14th time, is an attempt to address and comment on some of these issues. He moves the action from the “Japan” of the original and sets it in a 1930s English seaside hotel. The white face paint becomes imperfect and clown-like, the set a slightly crumbling, stylised art-deco façade, and at intervals a troupe of high-kicking bellboys and maids appears, so we can never forget that the action is taking place in a surreal, improbable world very unlike our own.

As such, Miller’s Mikado succeeds where every other version I’ve seen has failed, because it constantly reminds us that Gilbert and Sullivan were first and foremost creating a satire, not a musical comedy. They were working at a time of wide-ranging, if implicit, censorship of the theatre, where easily affronted middle-class audiences would simply not turn up if a work had a whiff of scandal or immorality about it. Gilbert himself likened the challenge of being a late-19th-century dramatist to “doing a hornpipe in fetters”.

Like Shakespeare hundreds of years earlier, using a fictional version of Italy to host his comedies about the Elizabethan court, Gilbert and Sullivan used their “Japan” as a proxy to enable them to satirise the very middle-class audiences they courted. The Mikado’s central plot device that I find so frustrating – that flirting is a crime punishable by death – is a dig at the theat­rical censorship that would not allow any extramarital romance to be portrayed on the London stage.

This production, directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall with input from Miller, uses cut-glass English accents and stylised gestures to poke fun at itself. The lyrics of “I’ve Got a Little List”, modified, as is customary, to include topical references, in this case to Sepp Blatter and to David Cameron’s supposed porcine predilections, only intensified this sense of self-satire. There’s a frisson to this, too – the ENO audience now chortling at puns about Volkswagen’s emissions are the descendants of the middle-class crowd that fettered Gilbert’s creativity back in 1885.

The young conductor Fergus Macleod took the score at quite a lick, which occasionally resulted in the crispness of the diction suffering in the higher registers – a shame, given how much of the comedy resides in the lyrics. Otherwise, the musical performances were excellent, Anthony Gregory providing a particularly lyrical version of “A Wandering Minstrel” as Nanki-Poo and Mary Bevan bringing a welcome softness to his lover Yum-Yum.

At the curtain call on opening night, after the cast had acknowledged the applause, Miller came out to take a bow. You can’t help but wonder, though, whether he could have foreseen in 1986 that his attempt to prolong the life of The Mikado by tearing it away from the stultifying tropes seen in a thousand amateur productions would become such an embedded and iconic part of the canon.

“The Mikado” runs at the Coliseum until 6 February

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires