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

Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.

Whose Frankenstein is it anyway?

Frankenstein : National Theatre, 14 April 2011

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein…or is it Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, wait a minute isn’t it Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? How about Nick Dear? He adapted the book after all. These questions are at the heart of what is essentially a solid, spectacular if slightly emotionally cold reworking of the classic ‘monster’ novel. This is a production overwhelmed at times by its celebrity. There can be few directors as hot in Hollywood right now as Danny Boyle. His versatility and formal inventiveness can be seen driving his work, from making a filmable version of Trainspotting through turning a story set in the Indian slums into a Hollywood smash (certainly no mean feat) before giving a true-life tale about a man who gets stuck by himself for 127 Hours a kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory shot in the arm (pun only marginally intended). Like many British film directors he has a strong grounding in the theatre and his return was always likely to be an ‘event’.

Could Boyle have returned to any other theatre but the Olivier? Where else could possibly have contained his whirlwind imagination? That vast, empty stage has stumped many previous directors. It is comically large, the actors appearing almost as matchstick men; sets that look as if they could have been pulled out of a Victorian dolls house. But part of the joy of the Olivier is seeing how they tackle the challenge. In the case of Frankenstein, having a soundtrack created by Underworld (another tick in the celebrity box) certainly helps. Their pulsing score drives much of the action and from the opening moment seems to be in tune with the heartbeat of the Monster (in this production, Jonny Lee Miller). It tones down but does not remove the darker beats of their best albums, and fills the theatre with a mechanical baroqueness. This is cathedral music as reinvented by the Futurists; it is thrillingly industrial and works in harmony with a set that seems to half an eye on the ever fertile steam punk market (how else to explain the emergence of a train seemingly assembled from cogs and random pieces of metal – a superb piece of theatre that is only let down by the questionably need for it in the plot.

The set makes full use of the Olivier’s malleability – the stage lifts and recedes as needed; to form cliffs, houses and a suitably windswept and remote Scottish island where Frankenstein retreats to build the Monster his mate. There seems little doubt that Boyle relishes the challenge of making an epic story work on an epic space. It also seems likely that, unlike some directors returning to theatre, Boyle is of that rare breed that has learnt from his work in film and seeks to apply that to the stage.

And in this lies the crux of the problem…<<Full Review continues here>>.