27 May 2007

A Matter of Life and Death – National Theatre, Friday 26th May 2007

24 hours after seeing this, I still can’t work out whether I loved it or loathed it – whether it was an affront on a much loved and classic film by a troupe of circus acrobats and clowns or whether it was a bold experiment in physical theatre intended to bring new life to a faded story and a new audience to the National. I’m sure all my readers are a cultivated and intelligent lot, but I will recap the story briefly as I suspect the review will not make much sense without it. Peter, a WW2 pilot, is shot down returning from a bombing raid on a foggy night over the channel. He makes radio contact with June, a radio operator back at base who attempts to talk him down. Peter bails out without a parachute and should, logically, die in the attempt. However, the angel sent to fetch him misses him in the fog – and in heaven, the Recording Angel finds she is a soul short. The angel is sent back to earth to collect him – but Peter and June have met and fallen in love. The angel reports back and is told that Peter will be allowed to plead his case in the Court of Heaven to continue living. Defence and Prosecution state their arguments – but ultimately it all comes down to the toss of a single coin; heads he wins, tails he loses. Which way will the coin fall?

What I loved about this production was its physical inventiveness. The company wisely didn’t try to present a metaphysical question in a literal way. Instead, on a starry circle of stage, lit from above with torches, four hospital beds, four upside down bicycles (being pedalled by four upside down nurses), four blazing dustbins and a spinnaker-shaped flight of metal stairs became a Lancaster bomber hurtling down through the clouds. Atop a column a man in pyjamas plays with a paper aeroplane. A vast cyclorama of empty sky and a couple of buckets of sand become a lonely, windswept beach. Two sets of the stairs become the bank “where the wild thyme blows” in the hospital production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, atop which sit Titania and her fairies in the shape of nurses dressed in floral curtains. A pair of carpet slippers become Bottom’s ears. A hospital bed becomes a garden swing, and four of them become the iconic stairway upon which Peter and June scramble depending on which face of the huge, slowly spinning coin above the stage currently faces front (there are a lot of hospital beds in this production – and indeed Heaven is portrayed as some kind of glorious recuperation ward in which the “patients” lounge around in their jimjams, eating sweets from ever-refilling paper bags and being watched over by efficient yet kindly nurses, with white starched headdresses taking the place of wings). The ping pong match is played with a white tennis ball, which is fixed to the end of a 10 foot black pole, which is swung from side to side by one of the ever-present nurses/angels. The doctor’s fatal motorbike ride through the storm is represented by a tiny model motorbike, complete with rider and headlight, being pushed around the stage by a “patient”. And in the final scene, the seated ranks of the audience become the hushed galleries of onlookers as the Judge sums up. All of this I loved.

Now for the things I didn’t. I hated the fact that the company tried to turn this into a musical. Introducing “comic” songs into this piece is just wrong. Music yes, but songs no – particularly irritating was the one sung by “Bottom” called “Now that I’m Dead”, which wasn’t funny, wasn’t relevant and wasn’t even particularly well sung, notwithstanding the fact that I thought it in extremely poor taste. The onstage band and singer provided music which was completely out of touch with the piece, being too loud, too intrusive, brash and of completely the wrong style and period. I hated the fact that the villagers shown on the “camera obscura” owned by the doctor (a “camera obscura” is a small darkened room with a round table in the centre. In the middle of the ceiling is a hole, through which light enters. By a cunning contrivance of lenses, images of the outside world are projected down onto the table. Turning a handle at the side of the table rotates the lenses, so the “projector” can rotate through 360 degrees) were presented as if they were walking around modern-day Waterloo, with the London Eye and the riverfront. I loathed the fact that some of the characters and scenes were turned into little more than circus acts – and unfunny circus acts at that. I hated the fact that there was no interval – perhaps the company were trying to present the piece in a “filmic” style but two solid hours is a long time without an interval at the theatre. I bet the theatre bar manager had something to say about that.

Individual performances were, on the whole, average. Tristan Sturrock made a likeable Peter, but David Niven he ain’t, love. Douglas Hodge was an affable and believable Frank, Lindsey Marshall played June as just that little bit too common for my liking. Andy Williams played Dr. McEwan as the kind of camp, affected twat that I thought died along with the music hall. Chike Okonkwo obviously failed to realise that, in the 1940’s, surgeons were upper class and spoke well, even if they were black. And Mike Shepherd played Harold (and “Bottom”) in such an irritating and whiny fashion that I longed to be rid of him and his bloody carpet slipper ears. By far the most unlikeable portrayal was that of “Conductor 71” – the angel sent to collect Peter from his burning plane (he's Icelandic and his name is completely un-typeable on a normal keyboard!). Gone was the polite decorum of Marius Goring (in the film version) as the French aristocrat beheaded in the Revolution – what we got was a Norwegian trapeze artist/magician/circus clown/“comedian” who apparently died during a misjudged escapology performance centring round a vat of milk. This presumably was changed in order to give an aspect of “theatricality” (and allow for lots of desperately unfunny “comedy” - this was as funny as a five-day old rollmop herring on a piece of dry Ryvita and was very, very wearing by the end of the evening - and lots of rope climbing and abseiling). CBB has recently posited the theory that he was dressed to look like Borat and is a parody of him (can one parody a parody?) in order to give some kind of "cultural reference point" for the bored teenagers dragged by their Niven-loving parents.

CBB loathed much of the piece (it is, after all, based on a classic film – one that he’s never seen but about which he nonetheless feels himself qualified to expound on) and the fact that the script was apparently developed through the rehearsal period rather than being learned from the page (“This is NOT the sort of thing that should be seen at The National Theatre – it should be done for ten pence in a church hall somewhere”. PROPER the-atre, of course (preferably starring Judi Dench in a farthingale, Donald Sinden in a pantouffle, or Helen Mirren with her baps out – or all three, if possible, maybe in something obscure by Euripedes in a translation by Moliere) is the ONLY kind of the-atre suitable for the hallowed stages of The National. I just laughed and called him a “reactionary old fart”.

And finally, a note on that ever-spinning coin. At this performance, it came down “heads – you win”. But from one of the “proper” reviews I’ve heard about, the ending really does depend on the spin of a single coin and might just as well have come down “tails – you lose”. The problem is, I’m not really sure I could sit through the show again in order to find out. I’ll stick with my DVD of the film. At least you get the fabulous moving staircase, David Niven, James Robertson “What’s the Bleeding Time?” Justice and a notable lack of rollmop.

1 comment:

ladyhayes said...

Ah yes...'Bottom' - was really hoping nobody would pick up on that or they may edit it out of my review....spot the deliberate mistake 'Ahem'.*looks slightly embarassed*

Very good site by the way, I shall also be stopping by!

Actually reading your review has actually brought back to me some of the moments of the play that I had mercifully scrubbed from my memory.....alas, the pain doth return. The songs! The pantomime dancing! The poor taste analogies!The slippers on the head! - it's all too much.

Said friend I went to watch it with still breaks into a white rage when anyone dares to mention the play....oh dear.

Tally Ho.

Kat Hayes