Olympic Opening Ceremony: Boyle’s Brand Britain Brings Belief Back

Be not afeard / This isle is full of noises [The Tempest]

Etched onto the largest bell cast at the Whitechapel Foundry and overlooking a pastoral idyll of Britain – maypoles, shire horses and, naturally, cricket – Danny Boyle took from our great playwright a statement of intent that he then used to totally reimagine a way a country uses such events to present itself to the world.

Years in the planning but managing to remain one of the most well-kept secrets in this age of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, yesterday we finally got to find out what happens when you spend £27 million on a one-off show. The results were as thought-provoking as they were spectacular. It showcased a Britain that may finally becoming at ease with its history and its place in the world.

After 50 years of declining world influence, colonial guilt and compounded by the growing financial crisis that may yet see the balance of power transfer permanently to the emerging economies, there is an anxiety that undercuts our patriotism. Boyle does not deny our history and does not gloss over the seismic transformations that fractured Britain and then the world. It is an incredibly bold move and one that only a mature country confident in its heritage could countenance.

When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008 they put together a spectacular that no country in the world could hope to match. It was also exactly the sort of thing that a regime that only pays lip-service to democracy would put together – encompassing thousands of people but with no sense of communal spirit and full of gloss. Boyle strips all this away – it has long been recognised you could not hope to beat Beijing at its own game. At times it felt chaotic and unmanaged but it had heart and soul. It put the volunteers themselves front and centre rather than being units in a large structure.

Boyle’s Britain is at times a terrifying place. Given our history, our colonial past and the traumatic impacts of war and social-cultural revolutions it could never have been otherwise.  Having been lucky enough to be in the Olympic Stadium during the technical rehearsal I can testify to the cauldron of noise created by the two thousand drummers. A faint rumble from the Olympic Park signifies the arrival of the industrial era, the growing wall of sound creating a pulsating beat as the green pastures of Britain is stripped away and out of the ground great towers begin to emerge and metal works creating molten rivers. The vibrations of technological chance ripple through the audience and a brutal landscape grows out of nothing. At times it is hard to tell whether we are being shown Britain or Tolkien’s Mordor.

Victorian industrialists, led by Kenneth Branagh as Brunel and given the task of delivering Prospero’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ speech in the absence of Mark Rylance, summon up the towers as if praying to some new deity. Boyle understands that these traumas are fundamental to our consciousness and to ignore them would be to hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem whilst ignoring the all-important ‘dark satanic mills’.

The use of the set to deliver the Olympic Rings was visually magnificent. It had the all-important reveal and there were audible gasps as the audience began to realise how all the pieces fitted together. As the rings started to crackle and spark it was obvious why Boyle demanded a late start. The image of the Olympic Rings built out of British industry and burnt into the night sky will become one of the iconic images of the 2012 Games.

A sense of reminding the world, and Britain itself, of the innovations Britain has given it was at the heart of this show. Brand Britain was on display and Boyle (with an awful lot of help from his long-term collaborators, Underworld) displayed his usual mastery of the magpie approach – cherrypicking his way through our shared history. James Bond was an obvious touchstone and there was clearly a global thrill of showing him meeting the Queen but it is a shrewd move to include Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean. In this country we recognise Bean but perhaps don’t realise just what a valuable brand Bean has become worldwide. Rowan Atkinson has long-established a legacy as one of the most gifted physical comedians of all time, and deserves to stand alongside true greats like the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, and much deserved his slot at the event, alongside slotting in his much needed humour during the Chariots of Fire sequence.

Perhaps the most emotional honour, and clearly a cornerstone of Boyle’s whole vision, was the prominence going to Sir Tim Berners-Lee; perhaps the man who has transformed Britain, if not the world, more than any other at the tail end of the 20th century. His anonymity is as incredible as it is unforgivable considering that he invented the architecture for global communications – the world-wide web. What better stage – a UK audience of at least 26 million and a global audience of up to 2 billion – to give him the status he richly deserves?

Brand Britain also included two of our crown jewels – the NHS and the BBC. The show started with the uniquely British shipping forecast – unrecognisable to people who don’t live here but a cosy reminder of all things British– and included a long section involving NHS volunteers in a vibrant number that also celebrated the importance of children’s literature. A reminder to the world about how British authors have set the global standard in this field; JK Rowling was given the honour of stage-time but the show harked back to the golden age of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here, as throughout, Boyle didn’t take the easy route of simple-minded jingoism but looked deeper into the soul of the nation and realised that Britain has never shied away from looking into the darkness in order to find light.

Lord Coe promised to ‘inspire a generation’ in 2005, and in 2012 this vision was realised with a left-field choice for lighting the Olympic cauldron. Standard practice is to give the torch to an icon or suitable dignitary. Would any other country have decided to abandon this practice and give the torch to unknown young athletes who have been selected by our current greats? What message does this send to the children watching around the world? And how, in 2016, will Brazil manage to top such an audacious, and pretty much uncriticisable, choice?

And special mention must be made of the Olympic cauldron. An unbelievably spectacular artwork in its own right; something that almost managed to upstage everything that came before. An art-installation with practical purpose, built with copper petals carried by every nation of the games. Amazing demonstrations of the Olympian ideal of unity and togetherness that towered above the athletes and was a fitting send off to the evening – alongside the spine-tingling sound of 80,000 people booming out the inevitable na-na-na-na’s of Hey Jude.

Danny Boyle was given something that was a chance of a lifetime but, in the wake of Beijing, deeply unenviable. His career to date has displayed an unshakeable knack of hitting the cultural pulse in any genre he has taken on – small-scale urban drama in Shallow Grave, a kinetic slice-of-nation in Trainspotting, global understanding in Slumdog Millionaire and in 127 Hours an audio-visual montage that served as a warm-up for some of the video sequences employed in the show. Here he has cemented his reputation and for him the world becomes his oyster.

He has given a Britain that we can believe in, that we can be proud of and that balances the light and dark of our history in harmony. He has given the world a Britain that recognises its contribution to the world, that has given the world great industrial and social change, that has provided an imaginary world for its children and an audio soundtrack to people’s lives for the past 50 years. And you really can’t ask for more than that.

For more on the global media reaction to the Opening Ceremony click here

The best of the Opening Ceremony

Olivier Awards 2012…and the winners are…

Tomorrow night sees the stars of the stage descend upon the Royal Opera House for what is arguably the biggest night in England’s (or perhaps more contentiously given the list of nominees – London’s) theatre world: the Laurence Olivier Awards. It will be possible to watch the event live via the red button on the BBC, or listen to Radio 2, from 19:30.

As is often the case the list of nominees make for interesting reading and arguably casts a brighter light on the theatre scene than the list of those who actually win. Rather than going through the complete list of the  runners and riders, a quick glance across the categories does raise some interesting talking points.

8 Key Questions

  1. In what can only be seen as a damning indictment of the non-subsidised West End stomach for risk-taking, the only nominated new play that premièred outside of the subsidised sector was an adaptation of the most famous of all Ealing comedies. Whilst well-received by the critics, is it not possible for a playwright to be allowed to stage new work in the West End (special exemptions for famous Hollywood actor/writers not withstanding)?
  2. Is it a thin year dramatically? Even the revivals don’t seem to have their usual vim. Hopefully Anna Christie will be recognised for its fine work and it will be up against a strong revival of Rattigan’s Flare Path; a playwright very much in vogue.  However Noises Off seems to be a rather populist choice when you consider the fine year the Donmar had with the rarely performed and excellently executed ‘Inadmissable Evidence’ directly following Anna Christie.
  3. Will London Road be able to withstand the Matilda charge? It lost out to populism at the Evening Standard Awards, and whilst Matilda is a fine and deserving winner in its own right isn’t it time that London Road was recognised for the stunningly brave and unique production it is (and for those who missed it first time, it is coming back to the Olivier this summer – a portent perhaps?)
  4. Can the Sheridan Smith success story continue? Everyone’s favourite 2 Pints of Lager…breakout star is up for a fairly unique double; after picking up Best Musical Actress at the first time of asking for Legally Blonde, Ms Smith will be hoping to make it two in two years for her fine performance in Flare Path. However competition is tough in a category that also includes Mark Addy, Bryony Hannah and Johnny Flynn; all of whom should be regarded as excellent contenders in their own right.
  5. Just how many can Matilda win? The remarkable story continues and you don’t fancy anyone coming up against them. Best new musical to edge out London Road? Bertie Cavill is surely a lock-in for Best Actor Musical. Does anyone have the heart to deny the Matilda’s their moment as Best Actress Musical? Paul Kaye could be on shakier ground as he is up against Katherine Kingsley’s Lina Lamont – a scene-stealing role if  ever there was one. And after all that there is a raft of technical awards that someone has to win.
  6. The Best Actress/Best Actor awards seem totally up for grabs. Desperately hope that the double-header Cumberbatch/Lee Miller is overlooked as Frankenstein wasn’t that great.  My personal preference would be a Ruth Wilson/Jude Law double for Anna Christie. However Douglas Hodge in Inadmissible Evidence would be a worth winner.
  7. What is the point, I mean really, what is the point of the BBC Radio 2 Oliver Audience Award when you have to chose between Jersey Boys /  Wicked / Les Freakin  Mis and Billy Elliot? How about giving us a write-in winner?
  8. How much more alive does theatre feel when you look at the nominees in Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre? Mogadishu and Roadkill could have been strong contenders in the main categories but here they feel punted to the sidelines.

And finally good luck to all the nominees.

Laurence Oliver Awards 2012

The Cultural Olympiad: Better late then never?

Well the big news of the day is the announcement of some major theatre projects that will be heading our way in 2012. One of the elements of the Olympic legacy that never really seem to have caught the public imagination is the Cultural Olympiad – something aptly skewered in the BBC’s painfully accurate picture of life as a middle-manager on the Olympics (something that I have at times had the questionable fortune to view first hand). 

World Stages London is (and this sounds does sound a little to close  to the clip above for comfort) “…a once-in-a-lifetime celebration through theatre of the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London’s people and culture”. Well okay, in fairness London is one of the great international cities of the world – and what sets it apart on the cultural stage is it is ability to be a melting pot that blends the ingredients of the art and world view of different cultures to create something unique – in a way that only New York can really claim to challenge..

With talents as varied as Peter Brook and Jonathan Dove, and pieces including a 500 strong site-specific work about Babel and the first-ever production of Wild Swans, it seems pretty certain that there will be something for everything in the run-up to the Olympics (where it will be wall-to-wall British sporting patriotism for the best part of six weeks).

Reasons to be cheerful…

The Suit

Peter Brook, in a collaboration with Marie Helene Estienne, continues his exploration of fables and the art of story-telling and  myth-making with this adaptation of a short-story by Can Themba. Now personally I have found Brook’s last two outings at the Barbican insubstantial and well below the standards that he is capable of. Lately his reduction of the stage to its barest essentials have taken on the feel of an ascetic. However one always lives in hope of a return to the form that made him a colossus of 20th century theatre.

It runs from 21 May to the 16 June. More details can be found here

Babel

In what looks like a very special production and the possible flagship event of the whole project, Battersea Arts Centre and WildWorks (responsible for the critically acclaimed The Passion at Port Talbot) are teaming up for Babel, which includes a cast of 500 community and professional actors, musicians and performers. It is site-specific and the location is yet to be revealed, but it seems likely that a famous London landmark is involved and one imagines that it will have to be somewhat tower-shaped (my personal hope is Big Ben but one imagines security concerns may make that one tricky)

It runs from 08 – 20 May. More details can be found here

Wild Swans

A literary classic and a world-wide best seller (no hyperbole here, over 30 translations and 10 million copies – thanks Wikipedia!), Juna Chang’s novel looks set to be one of the more popular smash hits of the festival. Telling a story of one family’s multi-generational struggle against the backdrop of an ever-changing China, it effectively contains the biographies of three generations of women in the Chang family.

I must admit it has never held any interest for me whatsoever. I haven’t read it and can’t imagine doing so soon. No doubt it is my loss but then so are many of the other books I have never, and sadly will never, read. It is almost certain going to be a complete sell-out and if you want to go, you should get your tickets soon.

It runs from 13 April to 13 May. More details can be found here

Three Kingdoms

Despite being one of the more mysterious offerings on the programme, its sheer intriguing nature has me hooked and will be what I will be most looking forward to this spring. Written by Simon Stephens and exploring the trade in trafficked women and organised crime across Europe, it doesn’t profess to being the most uplifting evening you are likely to spend in the theatre. However a new play by Stephens is always worth catching and it is interesting to see a plotline that seems more suggestive of a film being given the stage treatment – throw in the puzzling trail picture (above) and you can count me in.

It runs from 03 – 19 May. More details can be found here

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