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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

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist