Updating 19th century satire

23:48, Nov 21 2013
AT THE COURT THEATRE: Nanki-Poo, Matt McFarlane, facing the pressure with a smile.

A new Christchurch production of The Mikado opens on Saturday. CHARLIE GATES talks to Court Theatre artistic director Ross Gumbley about Monty Python, steam punk and updating 19th century satire.

Ross Gumbley is excited about The Mikado.

As workers make the final adjustments on an elaborate set that mashes steam punk, Victorian Britain, and Japanese tradition into an absurd and whimsical confection, he talks quickly about why he wanted to stage this 19th century musical.

He's less than a week from opening night of the biggest and most expensive production ever staged at the Court Theatre, but the nerves aren't showing. Instead, there is enthusiasm and energy.

He laughs frequently and riffs on the various influences that have gone into this new production; filled with confidence by his smash hit production of Grease last year and The Court's new Addington premises.

Gumbley, who is artistic director at The Court, enjoyed thunderous success last year with his production of Grease, which he co-directed with Stephen Robertson.


The show was well reviewed and 20,000 tickets were sold during its six- week run in December and January.

But what to do for an encore? And why a 19th century Gilbert and Sullivan opera set in a fantastical Japan?

"This is a reaction against Grease," he says. "Grease was such a huge commercial and artistic success it was important that I get as far away from it as I can."

The Mikado was first staged in 1885, at one point that year it was being performed in 150 theatres around the world at the same time. Gilbert and Sullivan used a fantastical Japanese setting as it allowed them to smuggle a sly and absurd satire of British society before Victorian audiences.

"The thing with The Mikado is it is about the state's interference in people's lives. One character assumes all the power in the village and has become lord high of everything else. That sounded familiar," says Gumbley.

"The Mikado really works for us. Democracy gone rife. That speaks to a Christchurch audience. The satire of government is just dead right for us in Christchurch now."

The I've Got A Little List song is performed by the High Executioner character and features an exhaustive inventory of "society offenders who might well be underground", including "apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind".

The lyrics, which even in the 1880s changed from production to productions to remain topical, have been adapted for contemporary Christchurch.

"That was a way of honouring the spirit of the piece and it's original intention."

The rest of the show has also been streamlined, updated and brought to modern life.

Tap dancing, pantomime, Monty Python, Norman Wisdom, Laurel and Hardy, The Goons, Monsieur Hulot and steam punk have all been thrown into the mix.

Gumbley has infused his production with British humour and pantomime conventions.

Actor Damien Avery, who plays the lead role Koko, has studied Norman Wisdom and the Jacques Tati classic film Monsieur Hulot's Holiday to nail the comic physicality of his role. He is also channelling British panto.

"Ross has been feeding me a whole lot of references," he says.

"The play steps out of itself and comments on itself."

Stephen Robertson's lavish and striking production design will also add to the spectacle.

The set features a bright red telephone box, blossom in the form of pink Japanese umbrellas, a large Union Jack and a traditional Japanese bridge.

The costumes are also something to behold; mixing steampunk gadgetry with Japanese street fashion.

But Gumbley is keen to make clear that all these vibrant changes are true to the original spirit of The Mikado's elegant satire, whimsy and fun.

"This is a massive, massive production. It is the biggest budget we have ever had."

"I want to honour it's spirit and make it sing like it did originally."


The Mikado at the Court Theatre, Saturday to January 18, Bernard St, Addington. Bookings ph 963 0870, courttheatre.org.nz.


GO has three double passes to give away to The Mikado, to be redeemed by December 9. To enter the draw, email go@press.co.nz with 'Mikado' in the subject line, before 5pm on Monday, November 25. Winners will be notified.

The Press