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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.

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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge