When you think of The Mikado in a traditional sense, the following images come to mind: kimonos, oriental fans, and possibly a samurai sword or two. Over the years, we’ve seen tradition bend, for example, Opera Australia’s Japan-meets-England production – elements of the traditional Japanese setting where juxtaposed with the Gentlemen of Japan carrying brief cases & umbrellas, and wearing bowler hats.
The usual Japanese themes and settings for The Mikado have seen it at the centre of controversy in recent times (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/25/arts/music/reviving-the-mikado-in-a-balancing-act-of-taste.html), something quite remarkable for an operetta that was composed in 1885. For some theatregoers, concerns abound regarding racial stereotypes and the sometime use of ‘yellow face’ make up. Here at Theatre People, we leave it to you the reader to make up your own mind as to which opinion you hold on the matter.
Refreshingly, the Diamond Valley Singers are about to present this Gilbert and Sullivan classic on an entirely English setting. This production will be in keeping the major story and elements, while placing the show in a different, and slightly more modern setting. “There’s a fine line being walked whenever a culture is being presented on stage”, says Nick Durbridge, who plays the title role of The Mikado for DVS. “G&S wrote this show in a time where people knew the superficial details of ‘Japanese’ culture – they didn’t do a great job of being authentic. Having said that, the story, the presentation of the problems, and the accompanying world they build, is all very British. Nanki-Poo allegedly goes abroad to “Knightsbridge”, a small Japanese settlement in England at the time the show was written. Everything was written from a point of familiarity, with only enough of a glimpse of the orient in the distance”.
Removing the story from Japan and placing it firmly in British society has certainly changed the levels of urgency one has come to expect from the piece. Having previously played the role of Katisha, Jenny Wakefield has been challenged in the rehearsal process with the new moral boundaries of the show. “I have found it hard to deal with the fact that no-one is in danger of dying or being executed”, says Wakefield. “They can only lose their job so it doesn’t quite have the punch of the original”.
Like Wakefield, Durbridge has previously played his role, and that has had its challenges. “There’s a tradition of rewriting certain parts of ‘A More Humane Mikado, allowing for the introduction of more topical examples of punishments befitting crimes. Due to having learnt this song in childhood, and later playing The Mikado in a production of Hot Mikado, I now have three versions of this song in my head. It makes for a wordy delirium”.
With DVS’ production set in a more modern time, the actors have had an opportunity to reimagine the characters from a new angle. Wakefield looked to the likes of Bette Davis, and other actresses of the time. “Being a star was all they had and when that faded they became bitter and pathetic”, she reflects. Dunbridge is reveling in working with his fellow cast members as they bring this new vision for The Mikado to the stage – “The cast has embraced this re-styling of the show with gusto, bringing with them a wealth of energy”.
Diamond Valley Singers’ The Mikado opens on Friday July 7th and runs through till Saturday July 15th at the Warrandyte High School Theatre. Tickets are available from www.dvsingers.org