Friday, May 11, 2007
Heaven Can Wait, Gin On The Other Hand...
Two hours and ten minutes without an interval! Not a good sign. It’s not that I need that half-time gin, but, hey, this thing ain’t called Interval Drinks for nothing. So it wasn’t in the best of moods that I entered the Olivier in the National to see what Emma Rice’s Kneehigh theatre company had done to one of my favourite ever films, the classic 1946 Powell & Pressburger movie, A Matter Of Life And Death.
The film tells the tale of RAF pilot Peter who is forced to bale out from his burning plane without a parachute. To do so will mean his certain death, something both he and the American air control girl he is speaking to over his radio, know. This opening scene has me weeping every time I watch it. “You’re life and I’m leaving you.” Fantastic stuff.
So, in fairness, I was always going to be difficult to please with this one, but I’ve liked Kneehigh’s work in the past, and I was more than willing to give it a chance. Indeed, both Lisa and I thought their take on Nights At The Circus was one of the best things we saw last year. However in that show, their particular brand of theatre – cluttered stages, aerial stunts and rather ramshackle live musical accompaniment – gelled perfectly with the source material. Here almost identical techniques are trotted out with little thought given to how they might enhance (or overpower) the story. So we get cycling nurses and flying beds and small explosions and annoying Scandinavian chappies and some really quite bad music. Just far too much stuff. I quickly began to regret not smuggling in a hip flask. Then remembered I didn’t own one, a huge oversight on my part, I wonder how much they cost?
Anyway, sorry, distracted there, back to theatre stuff.
I’ll admit the production delivered a couple of visually striking set pieces (I enjoyed the slo-mo table tennis game and the camera obscura scene), but that wasn’t nearly enough to save this production from its own excessive approach. Plus they’ve tampered with the ending. When Peter takes his case to heaven’s version of an appeal court, to argue that – having fallen in love during the extra time on earth mistakenly awarded to him – he deserves to stay alive, he is now confronted not only by his dead father, but by the victims of the Coventry and Dresden bombings.
The production hits you about the head with the message that love, however pure, rarely triumphs over the indiscriminate brutality of war. Yes, War is Bad, and good people die and, yes in this respect, war in 1945 has much in common with war in 2007. It’s not exactly a message you can argue with, but surely there were other ways of making this resonate with modern audiences, by giving the play a contemporary setting, or, I don’t know, creating an original work that didn’t involve pissing all over one of the best British films ever made?