It was a pity for the OU Gilbert & Sullivan Society that owing to venue non-availability, they could manage just two performances of The Mikado - any show surely deserves more exposure than this, and a fizzing one like this positively demands it.
This was my introduction to the MBI Al Jaber Auditorium which has the Rick Mather
Partnership's fingerprints all over it; cf. the new extension to the Ashmolean
and the new sixth quad at Keble College among other projects from the same
stable. It was one of the 93 new buildings in the UK that won a RIBA award
for excellence in 2010, mildly surprising given that from the outside it bears
a passing resemblance to a Cold War air-raid shelter and that the inside is a
bland blend of the external stone wall of the college with modern
materials in cream and natural wood.
The set consists of a prominent 'NO FLIRTING' sign showing a silhouette couple kissing, a board bearing a large collage of pictures and slogans – The Beatles' Revolver and Sergeant Pepper, poet Ted Hughes' book covers and many others - a chaise longue and a couple of chairs. We had an orchestra of 10 plus conductor Fifi Korda: pretty good, though the pair of violins was a little scratchy at times. There was good oboe work, vigorous trumpet from Matthew Day and suitably rollicking piano from Osman Tack. If stage to orchestra cues were not always spot-on, a three-week overall rehearsal schedule is stretching the possible to the very limit, and of course, this was only the second performance.
The 'concept' was to sail the opera from Kyoto all the way to an Oxford College, complete with local references inter alia to the Cornmarket and the Vice-Chancellor; and Nanki-Poo got a big laugh on his announcing blithely: 'Perhaps I ought to withdraw from Oxford and go to Cambridge for a few years!' I thought artistic director Lova Blavarg had succeeded in achieving the tricky balance between updating the show to a specific place but not throwing the baby out with the bath water by creating awkwardness between the tone of the lyrics and the concept. Certainly the satirical force of the opera vis a vis arbitrary power and ludicrous legislation remained timelessly intact. For the most part the satire was comprehensible since the actors' diction - very important in G&S, given the quality of WS Gilbert's libretto - was pretty good, with that of the men on the whole rather better than that of the women. Mark Bogod as Pish-Tush and Peter Hammerton's Pooh-Bah were especially clear.
The wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo was played by David Garrick, heroically filling in at shockingly short notice, and he was not at all out of place; word-perfect and boasting a pleasant tenor voice. Priya Radhakrishnan as his beloved, Yum-Yum, was a bundle of smiling coquettishness, accomplished in gesture and expression. I liked her reaction when told: 'The fact that your husband is to be executed [beheaded] in a month rather takes the top off it'. She sang her celebrated aria 'The sun, whose rays....' with aplomb, drawing back her veil as she went, though to be fussy she was a little hurried on the reprises of 'I mean to rule the earth, as he the sky' and 'ah, pray make no mistake, we are not shy' – very nice clarinet accompaniment here.
As Pooh Bah, the corrupt, multi-tasking jobsworth, Peter Hammerton was a tall, raven-like figure in gown and mortar-board, playing with plenty of swooping energy: 'I'm not used to saying how-do-do to anyone under the rank of stockbroker!'. Sam Lane was a delight as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, with easy movement and high good humour mixed with wheedling fear that extended later to outright grovelling. I especially liked his cultured baritone, too, and in his duet with Katisha (Lucy Gibbs, with her fine choral scholar's alto) he was not in the least inconvenienced. The victims on his ominous list (which he could just have enunciated a touch more clearly) were Messrs Putin and Kim Jong-un, 'freshers when they're pissed', the chuckers of public sector workers on the dole, and Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexiteers everywhere. Helena Walters was a slyly amusing Pitti-Sing, Edward Huang a rather stiff and stolid Mikado, though he killed himself with laughter at the prospect of inflicting condign punishments and the seven-strong chorus sang and danced with zest.
Near the end, Ko-Ko concluded his 'The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring' [tra-la!] by kicking his bouquet into the audience with an explosion of flowers and petals. Not only a little metaphor for his own buzzing performance but a more elaborate one for the ability of this material, 133 years after its birth, to blow-up pomposity with a chuckle.