If ever there were a loving valentine sent to the world of the theater, and especially to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, this is it. With Topsy-Turvy, director Mike Leigh has brought to life not just Victorian London, but how theater collaboration can build a masterpiece. Leigh shows us in sumptuous detail how The Mikado came to be. Starting with the irritable partnership between W. S. Gilbert (Jim Boadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner), which is about to split apart, we're off on a journey to make-believe Japan that ends in triumph. Along the way we deal with Gilbert's irascibility and love of puncturing complacent buffoons and Sullivan's impatient desire to write greater things than comic operettas.
The pair have had great success when we meet them, already the authors of ten hits which include H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. However, their last show, Princess Ida, didn't do well. Gilbert feels he's run dry of clever ideas and he's tired of Sullivan's often-stated need to write better things. "If you wish to write a grand opera about a prostitute," he tells Sullivan, "dying of consumption in a garret, I suggest you contact Mr. Ibsen in Oslo. I am sure he will be able to furnish you with something suitably dull." Sullivan, on the other hand, is tired of Gilbert's make-believe contrivances. "Oh, Gilbert!" he says, "you and your world of topsy-turvydom. In 1881, it was a magic coin; and before that it was a magic lozenge; and in 1877 it was an elixir."
Gilbert and his wife visit the Great Exhibition and see the Japanese display. He's taken by the color, the exotic dress and customs...and he thinks of a great idea for a new comic opera which will take place in Japan. Sullivan comes to realize that his desire to write real operas and oratorios won't bring in a fraction of the income his partnership with Sullivan has provided, and he agrees to the project. We're observing all this as it goes along, getting to know both men, amused by their weaknesses and impressed by their strengths. Gilbert is a big man, bluff, not one for giving compliments, intimidating most of the people he meets with a sharp tongue. But he knows what he's doing, and much of what he's about is poking fun at the stuffy strictures and posturing of Victorian manners. Sullivan may be a womanizer who loves the luxurious life, a man who needs a collaborator more than he realizes, but he's a dedicated professional. Any production he is a partner in he'll commit himself to completely.
The last half of the movie takes us into the world of the theater to watch the creation on stage of The Mikado. Gilbert directs, Sullivan conducts; they rehearse actors who are allowed lives of their own, with all the ego, the hurt feelings, the blossoming under praise, the dedication, the skill...and, sometimes, the alcohol and the opium. Watching Gilbert rehearse three cockney actresses in how to perform "Three Little Maids From School Are We" is a great bit of movie making all by itself. We're treated to seeing some wonderful songs rehearsed and performed..."A Wandering Minstrel I," "A More Humane Mikado," "The Criminal Cried As He Dropped Him Down" and, as a sort of coda to the movie and life in the theater, "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze."
Topsy-Turvy is gorgeous to look at, especially during the scenes on stage. The actors all do excellent jobs. Just a few of the standouts, in addition to Broadbent and Corduner, include Martin Savage, Timothy Spall, Shirley Henderson and Kevin McKidd, all playing stage actors rehearsing and performing. For those who remember Gollum with fondness, there's also Andy Serkis as the dance director John D'Auban.
And are the Gilbert and Sullivan plays still funny in the 21st Century? They may require a desire to appreciate them, a willingness to find out what is being parodied in the show you'll see, and a liking for literate, complex wordplay. The shows certainly require actors with trained diction. But their shows are still being staged and people are still buying tickets for them. Two weeks ago my wife and I went to see a semi-professional production of one of their lesser efforts, Patience. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves watching pompous poets being punctured. The theater was close to a sell-out.