All entries for Sunday 29 July 2012

July 29, 2012

Isles of Wonder

Writing about web page http://www.london2012.com/spectators/ceremonies/opening-ceremony/

There's so much been written on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony that I certainly don't feel the need to talk at length about the event. Suffice to say, I thought it was a bold and wonderful opening, celebratory while keeping its tongue at least partly in its cheek, self-deprecating and triumphant. The Bond/Queen and Bean sections were theatrical coups; the internet/music sequence had a baffling and unnecessary narrative which, thankfully, didn't detract from a fabulous celebration of Britain's achievements in music and film; the tribute to children's literature was gorgeous and the political statement justly felt; and I thought the cauldron looked terrific and the choice of the final torchbearers a great touch.

My compatriot Jem Bloomfield has written eloquently about the Shakespeare contribution - Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, speaking Caliban's lines from The Tempest, 'be not afeard', and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. I'm not interested so much in where these words came from as what they were doing in Brunel's mouth at this particular moment.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Among all the furore over certain groups branding the ceremony too "leftie" (especially the idiotic Aidan Burley MP), I felt particularly bemused, as this section of the ceremony left a slightly sour taste in my mouth on account of its presentation of more conservative values. Was this a celebration? We watched a halcyon vision of Britain's bucolic past torn apart by industrialists, who removed the landscape in choroegraphed, machine-like movements, creating a smoking industrial landscape that forged the Olympic rings out of the ashes of the countryside. It's an oddly ambivalent moment to celebrate, and the ceremony seemed to know this. The evocation of Lord of the Rings imagery, the confusion of the Revolution and the groups it brought together, wandering lost among the smokestacks (rather like the paddy-field farmer in the cartoon introduction to Have I Got News For You), the wealthy industrialists becoming rich at the expense of the faceless masses; it was, in many ways, a nightmarish opening. I'm not quite sure what the fireworks-spewing rings at the conclusion of this sequence were meant to say, exactly - don't worry, the destruction of the countryside was worth it if we get to hold the Olympics? The wealthy have made all this possible? To my mind, it works best in the context of the entire show, where those values were thrown into contrast with the NHS sequence that so outraged Conservatives and Republicans.

What was most remarkable about Branagh's performance, to my mind, was the glimpses we got of him walking round, smoking a cigar and smirking at the Revolution he had instigated. Narratively, I suppose I would have liked to see a little more sense of this spiralling out of control, the "What have I wrought?" moment. But perhaps this was implicit enough in the lines with which he began the show. In Brunel's mouth, the words of Caliban's speech became the capitalist dream that Cheek by Jowl played with in their Russian-language production.

[A]nd then in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

It was the riches that Brunel longed for, that provided the drive and inspiration that led him, Saruman-like, to tear up his country's green spaces. Where the nature of the riches Caliban imagines are left deliciously open to interpretation, Brunel's were material. I couldn't help but be reminded of Caliban's much later line:

Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.

When Stephano and Trinculo are presented with riches that have appeared magically from the air/Ariel, Caliban is the one awake to their true nature. Perhaps I'm over-reading, but I can't help but feel that it's in the last line of the earlier speech that the difference between Brunel and Caliban can be seen. Caiban "cried to dream again". His instant recourse is to the imaginative world, not to an attempt to realise or own the music he has heard. It is at other points in the play that he attempts to take action, to disastrous effect. Brunel, conversely, immediately aimed to turn his dream of riches into a reality. His usurpation of the "isle of wonder" may not be the same as Prospero's, but the march of industrial capitalism at the expense of nature is, of course, a staple trope and one associated with the coloniser (see Avatar and a million better books and films).

To debate whether Brunel was 'Caliban' or 'Prospero' in this fantasy, however, is something of a red herring. The point is about appropriation, with Brunel colonising and disrupting Caliban's words just as he subsequently did to the landscape. In looking to the artificial clouds that hovered in the stadium and praying for riches to fall from them, Danny Boyle both literalised the image and rendered it a tagline for a capitalist dream. I'm not sure we were meant to celebrate this, exactly, but Branagh made it feel terrifyingly appropriate.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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