By Marc S. Sanders
For those that are unaware, I dabble in community theatre. I perform on stage. I direct. I produce. Occasionally, I write plays. So while watching Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy, I could not help but ask where have I heard some of these conversations before.
As Leigh’s film focuses on the making of the Japanese inspired opera The Mikado from Gilbert & Sullivan, I felt assured that the backstage tendencies of actors, composers, directors and producers has always been the same. They have egos. They are diva like. They are perfectionists, and the best ones of all catagories rehearse over and over and over again until it feels and sounds just right.
Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is the writer. Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is the composer. Early in the film, Sullivan seeks to break away from the more playful stage escapades of Pirates Of Penzance material. He wants to do more human interest material that don’t just rely on whimsy and “magic potions” or elixirs. Gilbert finds nothing wrong with continuing on the same tract. Audiences seem to respond to it and it comes naturally to him. When the pair are recruited by a producer to write a new production for the Savoy Theatre in London, they find themselves at odds in their artistic goals.
Only after Gilbert attends an expedition featuring Japanese culture does the idea arrive for the opera to be famously known as The Mikado. Sullivan finds himself inspired as well. After all, the English are not so familiar with Japanese lifestyle. Who says films and theatre can’t teach you anything?
From there, Topsy-Turvy presents backstage scenes of rehearsals where there is stop and start readings from the script. Personally, I could not understand why none of the actors wrote their own blocking down, but I digress. The scene with Broadbent as Gilbert directing a portion of his cast by perfecting enunciations and staging is a joy to watch, and a lesson in the efforts to stage a perfect showpiece. It also amuses me how they dress for a backstage rehearsal. The men in their finest day wear suits with top hats. The actress in her well tailored silk gown. Somehow, theatre has diminished itself to my superhero t-shirts and shorts for a seven o’clock call on a Tuesday night.
There are costume fittings. Makeup on the Anglo Saxon performers to make them appear Asian is a constant humorous sidebar.
Dressing room banter is also on display. I love the back and forth ego trips between the lead actor, a fabulously snobbish diva played by Timothy Spall cast as the production’s Mikado, and another cast member played by Vincent Franklin. These actors are not shy about their self regarded importance to Gilbert & Sullivan’s reputable accomplishments. They are even nervy enough to question if the writer/composer still have the knack…but only discuss this backstage when no one is listening. Later, you see how an actor’s insecurity shows when Gilbert considers cutting one of the Mikado’s most popular numbers. Spall’s expressions of hurt say so much.
Another great scene is realizing that another actor questions his costume. Heaven forbid but he cannot perform on stage without an undergarment corset. It’s unheard of.
Mike Leigh’s film was one I was never familiar with. I didn’t know anything about it until Miguel introduced it to me. Technically, it’s spectacular, offering outstanding period set designs and costumes from the the early 1900s before turmoils of war and conflict invaded Europe.
The film runs a little long as it takes just a little bit of effort to get accustomed to period setting and high brow dialogue. On a second viewing I imagine it’ll leave you with a pleasing grin as you’ll feel more in on the jokes and attuned to the nature of operatic theatre. Topsy-Turvy is a well researched and a terrific examination of life in theatre. It explores the disagreements and struggles to stay relevant as a writer, composer or actor. Most importantly, it demonstrates that live theatre is never considered a hit until its one true test; the test of performing in front of a live audience.