There was a standing ovation from the audience at The King and I at the London Palladium on Tuesday night, but then, audiences at musicals are invariably rather a sweet crowd, way less critical than opera goers. The musical’s heroine, Kelli O Hara, who plays the feisty feminist British governess, was in the papers yesterday declaring that there was no better time to be doing the show because of its themes of understanding across the religious divide; the writers, she said, were “ahead of their time and somehow it seems they are still right ahead of their time”.
Come again? The King and I is entirely reflective of its time, viz, 1951, but it says everything about ours that our heroine feels obliged to present the piece as an exercise in cross cultural understanding. In fact, it’s hair-raisingly at odds with all our pieties about the absolute equality of cultures. The crux of the thing is that the British governess makes the entire Siamese court dress up like Europeans and eat their dinner in a European fashion in order to prove the king is not a barbarian. The remarkable thing is that the production gets away with playing it straight, without subverting the idea of European culture as any on-message theatre director would have done.
And for good measure the high point of the entertainment is a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – or rather here, Uncle Thomas’s Little House – by the King’s reluctant concubine where Uncle Tom is depicted by a man in a mask which was a veritable caricature of a round faced negro. Would they get away with it, I asked myself, sucking my teeth? Well, yes they did, because the audiences for musicals come along for a good night out, and for catchy numbers, not for striking attitudes. They may also, rather sensibly, take the view that a musical from 1951 is going to have ideas and attitudes rather different from our own, and it’s not something to get worked up about.
All I can say is, it’s a good thing Stella Creasy and Helena Kennedy weren’t there; in the great divide between liberal and popular culture, musicals seem to fall below the liberal radar. Perhaps the guardians of the culture were busy watching the football, though I wouldn’t bet on it.
I rather hope Kelli O Hara gets away with passing off this perfectly enjoyable show as an exercise in celebrating mutual interreligious understanding.
But how interesting that this was what she felt she had to say.