Tech Blog: The Mikado 2009

by Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

2008/2009 was the year that I was inexcplicibly elected Chair of the society - an odd decision by the society, but a foreshadowing of a wider University trend as this was the year we also elected a pirate as Students' Union President. Anyway, I was pleased to be chair for The Mikado and wrote a suitably flowery blurb for the programme; complete with characteristic semi-colons - which are the result of trusting too much in MS Word's grammar checker - and sentences of no less than 27 words.

The Mikado is usually considered the best of all G&S operettas, although I'd argue the nautical themed Pirates and HMS Pinafore are the most famous. As a result, you have to do something a bit special with it to make it stand out from the usual crowd of traditional performances. In the case of 2009's show, this was done by "modernising" the setting. Unlike with Ida, the dialogue went untouched (to be fair, you don't want to mess with Gilbert's words, and for the most part you don't need to) except for the traditional updating of the 'Little List' song and the Mikado's song - getting some of the biggest laughs as James Gaughan sadistically described exactly what he wanted to do to Gordon Brown. While the second act was traditional in the sense the sense that the cast were in kimonos (a tradition of Japanese weddings even in the 21st century) the first act had the male chorus in sharp suits and the female chorus in, yes, you guessed, it Japanese schoolgirl outfits. Win!

With the set mostly destroyed by a combination of the previous shows, Tom Scott's cannon (still totally worth it) and general wear-and-tear, The Mikado went far more minimalist just to finish off the last of the servicable wood we had to deal with. This was the year our YUSU grant was a mere £35 so we had to get by on what we already had and we bought pretty much nothing except what was covered by sponsorship from White Stuff for costumes. The original concept was to build two pagodas to cover each wing, one as a more solid house-like structure and another as a garden pagoda. The end result was a smaller version of what was intended, but given the time, budget and the difficulties in getting set building started (for the first half of the year we were stuck with a whole load of sports equipment inexplicably filling our container) this worked out well. The roofs for both pagodas were material rather than wood and most of show week was spent meticulously fireproofing the sheets before attaching them. This was especially odd as we had no such requirement for the masses of timber in use on stage (and Central Hall is a massive concrete fire hazard anyway, with fire escapes that don't open and certainly don't comply with current EU and UK fire safety regulations, but I'm saving this as amunition for the next time they complain about the orchestra pit being unsafe). The pagodas were relatively simple constructions, but were still difficult to errect as we weren't working from a particularly easy pattern - most of the supporting structure was bodged in show week, but at least most of the painting was done in advance.

The rest of the backdrop was left as the normal Central Hall projection screen, with lights beaming up it in various colours for the scene changes. Again, this was minimalist, but quite stylish. Projection again played a part in Pish-Tush's (Mike) 'Great Mikado' song, in this case he gave a PowerPoint presentation on the subject, complete with decapitating stick figures. Mike also had an extending pointing stick, which kept growing, and growing, and growing throughout the song (compensating for anything, perhaps?) thanks to his use of an old car aerial. The projector was also used to beam the Japanese flag on the screen during the interval and before the show - accompanyed by some traditional Japanese music, the mood was pretty well set. Following the finale, it also projected "Act 3", a somewhat low-brow "what happened next", which always got a round of applause but I don't think it was as well polished as it could have been - there should have been music with it and it should have been followed by an encore, but the MD (Mark) decided against it on the fairly understandable grounds of not having the orchestra play the same thing 8 times in a row. But regardless, our complimentary emails following the show were universally positive about it, even if most of the jokes were toned down - the matinee audience may not have been happy with Pooh-Bah's "Lord High Pimp Daddy" and the implication that Peep-Bo was whoring herself out.

The set wasn't entirely without its extra touches. Stage right had a custom built bridge, used for many solos and soliloquies in keeping with traditional Japanese theatre and the wings were adorned by massive red banners, declaring in Japanese that the audience had just "lost the game" - an in-joke too far or something to confuse people who could actually speak Japanese, I don't know. Comparitively speaking, The Mikado was relatively stress free thanks to the fact it didn't require anything too complex that we'd never done before.

See also:
The Mikado 2009

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