The ENO's Mikado is a glorious reinvention of a classic

Simon Thomson
The grotesque costumes bring new meaning – and laughs – to the text

The ENO’s production of The Mikado, first directed by Jonathan Miller in 1986 and now in its 14th revival, is beloved of fans of light opera. And rightly so; it’s Gilbert and Sullivan at its ridiculous, ebullient best.

Famously stripped of the visual trappings of late 19th century Japan, The Mikado looks like a Cole Porter musical, viewed through the lens of MC Escher and dressed by Ronald Searle. This bold relocation gets better and better with every passing year. The original story bore virtually no relation to real Japanese culture, and the new setting allows an audience to laugh at the absurd sense of Victorian imperialist and racial superiority that suffuses the original work.

Indeed, having run for the better part of three decades, the whole production feels like a machine perfectly tuned to its audience’s comic sensibilities. Laughs are cultivated everywhere; and they are far more numerous than those made explicit in the script. Members of the chorus perform slapstick in the background as the main characters sing, there are unexpected changes in accents, and old jokes are cheekily revised and embellished to ensure the show maintains a satirical edge. This time around, the Lord High Executioner’s “They’d None of them Be Missed” naughty-list has been updated to include a dissembling German automobile manufacturer and a charcuterie-loving Prime Minister.

In the week that would have marked his 90th birthday, the opening night was preceded by a reception to mark the arrival of a portrait of Sir Charles Mackerras, a conductor who enjoyed a long association with the ENO, and whose specialties included Gilbert and Sullivan. The portrait is now being displayed in the Coliseum’s Dress Circle Foyer. The reception also served to welcome the ENO's latest Mackerras Fellow, and the conductor of the current production, Fergus Macleod. Down to earth and personable, at just 28-years-old, he is the company’s youngest conductor since Mackerras’ debut in 1949. His intelligence and enthusiasm carried through to the performance of the musicians.

Likewise, the enjoyment of the cast was evident onstage, from the wide-eyed dancing domestic staff, laughing like cartoon mice, to the masterful turn of Richard Suart, as Ko-ko. Suart has been associated with the role of Lord High Executioner for nigh on 30 years, and by this point he has crafted a character so complete and multifaceted – snivelling, cowardly, grandiose, self-serving, pompous, lascivious, insecure, and cunning – that he really ought to be recognised alongside the likes of other iconic, flawed-but-sympathetic comic figures like Basil Fawlty or Alan Partridge.

This current revival will celebrate the 200th performance of Miller’s production on 6 December, an outstanding accomplishment, richly deserved.