Oi, Gilbert and Sullivan, your tunes are cracking and all that but Sooz Kempner’s time in The Mikado opened her eyes to some of your, let’s say, issues. And she’s got a little list. Actually, a big list.
In 2013 I got to make my Nanna proud. I played Katisha, the terrifying harridan in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Nanna is a big G&S fan so I was excited to play a role that she’d appreciate.
However, the production I was in had reimagined the show’s setting of Titipu, Japan as a modern-day English country club and Katisha was now being played as a hotpants-wearing, cleavage-flashing bully rather than an old, ugly woman. Nanna probably wasn’t expecting that.
The Mikado is a light-opera masterpiece, a hilarious swipe at the class system with G&S’s finest 11 o’clock number, There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast. The hilariously topical I’ve Got a Little List still manages to feel relevant over a century later. The laughs come thick and fast and the characters are all richly drawn. The show is nigh-on perfect and has aged brilliantly.
However. Holy shit, guys, The Mikado is so sexist! And Katisha is the most misogynistic creation in a show full of misogynist creations.
Playing her was incredibly exhilarating. She is introduced at the beginning of the act one finale, a screeching, whirling entrance as she laments her loss of the romantic lead (Nanki-Poo) to the perfectly pretty Yum-Yum (Look… when I say the show has aged brilliantly I’m obviously not talking about the racially insensitive character names).
She gets the show’s best songs, she has some of the funniest lines (“My right elbow has a fascination that few can resist!”) and, alongside Koko the executioner, she’s probably the most memorable character.
So how is the show sexist?
OK, for a start in the original piece Katisha is a villain because she is an old, gross-looking spinster. She is portrayed as desperate for a man and all the other characters only ever talk about her in terms of what an aesthetically offensive beast she is. The other female characters in the cast are the pretty-as-pictures young maids that you’ve probably heard about from the show’s most famous number, Three Little Maids.
We root for Yum-Yum because she is young, pretty and in love. That’s it. Katisha is unpleasant to just about everybody but we also see her inner pain a couple of times in mournful arias such as Alone And Yet Alive.
I didn’t play Katisha as old or ugly, I played her as young, raging and entitled. Dressed in hot pants, heels and a £3 boob-job from Primark I felt, with my hair backcombed to dizzying heights, strong and empowered by my own trashiness. I wanted to play Katisha as a sort of angry Dolly Parton. From Essex.
But as rehearsals went on I began to feel like a bit of a joke. After all, day after day I was hearing my castmates describe Katisha as a disgusting weirdo. My feminism took a real kicking as I attempted to quell the need to yell “I HATE BEING THE ONLY CHARACTER IN THE SHOW WHO ISN’T PRETTY!”
Of course Katisha is bitter and angry – everyone dismisses her as an unmarried witch. Sure, women had died so that I could get the vote but I wanted to be a pretty girl, dammit!
I had last felt like this at school, gazing at the pretty girls who wore purple eyeshadow and scraped their hair back into eyebrow-raising ponytails and wore Claire’s Accessories glittery lipgloss and wishing I could be as exquisite as them. Because being a quirky little ET-eyed goblin is something that doesn’t quite work when you’re 13. And here I was at 28, a grown woman in a light opera, lamenting that I might not be pretty enough.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about Katisha is that her redemption in the final act is reached because Koko, at first grudgingly but then eagerly, decides he will marry her. Hooray! She has found a man, so she is complete!
I’m just being picky though. The Mikado is very much a product of its time and with all the wonderful music and still-relevant wit it’s easy to look past the glaring misogyny. I’ll give G&S the benefit of the doubt and see even the sexism as mostly tongue-in-cheek.
Opening night rolled around and my fears and insecurities melted away. There was strength in Katisha’s implied ugliness. I decided to own it and had an absolute blast playing her because, after all, ugly is as ugly does. Oh, and it turned out Nanna was super proud.
The 23rd International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival runs in Harrogate until 21 August.
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