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Friday, 5 April 2019

The Mikado

One of my earliest memories are of my mum and dad around the piano singing songs from the Mikado. I may be imagining my dad in his Chief Officer’s uniform and my mum in a beautiful purple dress, but I do remember most vividly running out of the room in tears as they sang ‘On a tree by the river’ (the Titwillow song) – Much to their amusement, I imagine.

The image reminds me of how you can never demarcate history and class into clearcut periods or social divisions.  A six-year old child in 1950’s working class area of Liverpool was watching his parents enjoying an Edwardian/Victorian past time, singing late Victorian light opera.

Turn the clock forward to 2019, the opportunity to see the Mikado performed by the Hereford Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the realisation that I had never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan production – nor heard the dreaded ‘Willow Tit Willow’ since those childhood days. The question was would I run out of the theatre in tears as the fate of the little bird unfolded.

We took the risk and I was entranced, caught up by the fun of it and by weirdness of British culture: reincarnating year after year pieces of comic light opera that one might have assumed had a sell-by date, and of equal importance, recapturing the flavour of a short but distinctive period in our past. Why?

We sat right at the front, the orchestra pit below us. While they were tuning I noticed three of the musicians were Asian and that led to the thought: Was about to feast on cultural appropriation – and if so, why hadn’t I heard of it before? Were Gilbert and Sullivan somehow preserved from this tsunami of the new correctness? Had the Mikado somehow slipped by unnoticed: ‘Yellow Face’ somehow being less offensive than ‘Black-Face’?
Again, when you look at the cast, you can’t help but be struck by the good humoured cultural self-confidence of the late Victorian with places and characters like:
Pish Tush
Yum Yum

Of course, I was wrong. In America at least the issue is live and casting a chilling effect on drama societies up and down the country, judging by a cursory google of ‘Mikado Yellowface.’
Life is too short to get involved in fierce debate as to whether operas like Madame Butterfly or Turandot should also modified or banned, suffice it to say that when, in 1907 Prince Fushimi of Japan visited London, the Lord Chamberlain banned performances of the Mikado in London for fear of giving offence. The gesture backfired, the Prince being upset that he’d been denied what he’d been looking forward to. The Daily Mail, more mischievous in those days, dispatched a Japanese newspaper critic to a provincial performance. M K Sugimura wrote: ‘I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and good fun but could not find the insults’.

And that about sums up my first viewing of the Mikado and a beautiful Yum Yum winning the hearts of every Koko in the theatre. As for Willow, Tit Willow, on this occasion the Keyton stiff upper lip remained rigid.

On a tree by a river a little tom-tit
Sang "Willow, titwillow, titwillow!"
And I said to him, "Dicky-bird, why do you sit
Singing Willow, titwillow, titwillow'?"
"Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?" I cried,
"Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?"
With a shake of his poor little head, he replied,
"Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!" 

He slapped at his chest, as he sat on that bough,
Singing "Willow, titwillow, titwillow!"
And a cold perspiration bespangled his brow,
Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!
He sobbed and he sighed, and a gurgle he gave,
Then he plunged himself into the billowy wave,
And an echo arose from the suicide's grave —
"Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!" 

Now I feel just as sure as I'm sure that my name
Isn't Willow, titwillow, titwillow,
That 'twas blighted affection that made him exclaim
"Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!"
And if you remain callous and obdurate, I
Shall perish as he did, and you will know why,
Though I probably shall not exclaim as I die,
"Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!"

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