London 2012 Opening Ceremony, first review
Danny Boyle's London 2012 opening ceremony was a triumph of punk over pomp, says Bernadette McNulty.
5 out of 5 stars
By Bernadette McNulty
9:56PM BST 27 Jul 2012
Artistically, Olympic ceremonies are strange beasts. Taking years to produce, they are performed only once, with an enormous cast of non-professionals. They are simultaneously theatrical productions – performed in the technically awkward, cavernous round of a sports stadium – and global TV spectaculars. They must invent a script that translates the abstract gobbledy gook of Olympic philosophies and the host nation’s idealised image into a largely wordless dramatic narrative using music, dance, mime and circus skills combined with an earth-shaking Bonfire night firework display and in the modern age, a megawatt flashing light show. They are creative and technical nightmares and by their very nature, utterly surreal.
Building on Leni Riefenstahl’s marching blueprint and getting souped up by the Americans in 1984 with the pizzazz of stadium rock, ceremonies have evolved a kind of universal language and aesthetic: bright, neon colours; tightly choreographed, synchronised bodies creating geometric shapes; futuristic set designs with tiered central stages; doves, flames, catsuits, pom poms and cute children. Their drama lies in their gloss and shine, their inhuman scale and shape and clean perfection, artistically transcending mundane reality.
After watching the final rehearsal on Wednesday night I can say this was certainly not a conventional show. Director Danny Boyle might have kept the flames and cute children and there were plenty of showpiece bangs but in every other respect his opening gambit ripped up the ceremonies rule book. This was about punk rather than pomp. His palette for ‘The Isles of Wonder’ wasn’t primary brights but mud hues and mattes, a Lowry-ish smudge of grass greens, dirty whites, industrial greys and even black. There were more cloth caps and bloomers than Lycra and sequins. In place of doves, there were cows and ducks. Instead of building a glittering space age set, Boyle filled the stadium with earth and bricks, conjuring strange centrepieces out of lopsided hillocks, belching chimney stacks, coal mines, hospitals and red-bricked houses.
Thematically too Boyle’s view of British history was quietly subversive, stripped of any iconic grandeur or royal pageantry. This was the story of migration and immigration, protest and rebellion. From the land to the cities, the working classes were shown literally rolling the grass away from under their feet. A carousel of Jarrow marchers, miners, pearly kings and carnival queens swirled around the arena, visually somewhere between Les Miserable and the people’s procession artist Jeremy Deller created for the Manchester International Festival in 2009.
Compared to the usually banal platitudes of global togetherness and national pride that goes on at an Olympics ceremony, this seemed breathtakingly politically charged. However, I don’t think Boyle was trying to make some agit-prop point, although there were echoes of his formative late Seventies years in the boundary pushing Joint Stock theatre company. The working class Irish Catholic boy from Bury who came of age during that punk decade, like many of his contemporaries in the Nineties Brit pop and art generation including Damien Hirst and Jarvis Cocker, has made a career out of depicting the working classes with sly humour and subversive surrealism rather than chippy anger. Boyle’s films have so often been about groups and communities of outsiders rather than individuals, whether that was Glasgow junkies, Thai beach bums or Indian slum kids.
But this ceremony was also about Boyle the award-winning, popular filmmaker and it was steeped in his signature moves: break-neck speed montages, widescreen angles, fast zooms. More than anything it was a love letter to British film, TV and music, from Mary Poppins to Harry Potter, Lionel Bart to Soul 2 Soul. With his musical partners Underworld it paid homage to some of the greatest British hits of the last fifty years spliced together with the anarchic energy of the rave culture Boyle was the first director to really understand. The whole audience on Wednesday was singing along and this was easily the best section for me that really brought the whole show to life, and made me proud of modern Britain.
I’m not sure it all worked. Without pushing those traditional ceremonial buttons so cravenly Boyle traded the visceral punch of a Lady Gaga-style arena show for a more opaque experience. Kenneth Brannagh is a fine actor but lacks the feral magnetism of Mark Rylance and overall, without powerful lead characters, the show periodically lost focus combined sometimes with an almost baffling level of visual detail. The pacing veered towards either too slow or too fast – I wanted to listen to so many of those great songs for longer – and I have no idea what the rest of the world will make of shire horses or men in top hats and tails gathered around a tree spouting Shakespeare. Maybe they will think it is the strangest episode of Downton Abbey they have ever seen.
Nonetheless, this opening ceremony was original, cool, intense and utterly compelling. More importantly underneath the old punk snarl, Boyle is a generous director unafraid of sentimentality or unabashed joy, and he filled this ceremony with heart and soul. You could see it reflected in the passion of all those thousands of volunteers dancing and drumming. Rather than turning them into anonymous cogs in a ceremonial wheel he gave them characters or fantastic choreography and in doing so made them all into star performers. It was the hardest directorial job in the world but Boyle did us all proud.