Richie McCaw's biggest fan takes on the choicest role in The Mikado

by Rod Biss / 14 February, 2017

Byron Coll as executioner Ko-Ko. Photo/David Rowland

That excitable All Blacks fan Tim from the credit-card ads is taking on one of the best roles in Gilbert and Sullivan.

Actor on stage, film and television, comedian, rugby fanatic and known to us all as that irrepressible fan of the All Blacks, Byron Coll is certainly multi-talented – though not, to my knowledge, as an opera singer.

But don’t write off his musicianship too quickly. He first learnt piano when he was about six and was so ­disappointed his secondary school, St Bede’s College in Christchurch, did not teach seventh-form music that he signed up to the Correspondence School. He taught himself guitar, served his time touring the South Island in a rock group and has written songs and music for several events. More recently, he played and sang the part of a Scottish folksinger in David Greig’s hit romcom “play with songs” Midsummer, for which he was named actor of the year in the Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards for 2013.

It is an unexpectedly lengthy musical CV but one that does not include Gilbert and Sullivan. Now, however, he is taking to the stage as the executioner Ko-Ko in the NZ Opera’s production of The Mikado. The show, directed by Stuart Maunder and conducted by Isaac Hayward, has been shipped over from Australia, where it delighted audiences with its melodies, rhythms and barbed wit.

Is Coll nervous? Although his piano playing is a bit rusty, he can still read music, “more or less”, and the part of Ko-Ko, he says, calls for a very special sort of singing in which pitch accuracy is nowhere near as necessary as getting the words across, loud and clear.

Coll, as Tim, hounding former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in a TV advert.

“I’d call it ‘character singing’, because with Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, you can really get away with a lot by pushing character.”

I get to talk to Coll in a break between rehearsals and he’s clearly buoyed by the way they are going. He’s relaxed, smiling, laughs a lot. His face is boyish and he sports a ginger stubble, though there’s not much left on top. Since moving from the capital to Auckland eight years ago, his life has been virtually non-stop success.

“My agent convinced me to come up because there was more work. It took me about six months to get my first gig but then it just kept rolling – working ­consistently as an actor from job to job. I’ve had about six months’ accumulated cold periods, of nothing in the pipeline, but there’s usually two weeks of a gap and then on to the next thing.”

In the first rehearsals for The Mikado, he confesses, he was “morbidly scared”, but when he realised Ko-Ko was completely different from everyone else, both as a character and in the style of singing called for, “I decided that I must work with my strengths, work with what I know, and that with Ko-Ko the starting point was character”.

But that character is misplaced – after all, Ko-Ko is a Lord High Executioner who doesn’t like chopping off heads with the ­instrument he calls his snicker-snee.

“Exactly! And he’s ­constantly coming up with his plans being thwarted.”

But his character’s intentions, Coll says, are good.

Photo/David Rowland

“And he knows how to play people for what he wants. He feels to me like a little puppy dog who just doesn’t give up; he’s always looking for the next way out. I know how comic rhythms work and I think I know how to play them.

“With Ko-Ko, the question is going to be how far can I push it? How much am I allowed to change? And how much can I add to what the character already is? How do you create a unique display while also ­honouring what’s on the page?”

A comic opera set in a remote Japan, The Mikado, written in 1885, satirises the Victorian political and social hypocrisy of the day. Will there be contemporary jokes?

“Yes, especially in the list song (“I’ve got a little list/Of society offenders who might well be underground”), which is the song that is always updated.

“There are always political stabs, ­contemporary stabs at specific people, and so yes, it’s ripe to have a good old stab at something that’s happening right now!”

THE MIKADO, NZ Opera, ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, February 14-19; Opera House, Wellington, February 25-March 2; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, March 7-11.

This article was first published in the February 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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