The National’s Olivier Theatre is, for want of another word, big. No. It’s more than big. While other large theatres disguise their bigness with gold and crystal and plush red velvet the Olivier seems to exist for the sole purpose of being enormous. Stepping out into this coolly monstrous cavern you gaze around; at its uniform purple seats disappearing up into infinity, its sleek roof towering above your head, the curly grey and slightly doddering figures spilling into the auditorium. Despite all this, the real attention grabber, however, is always right in front of you: the vast, empty Olivier stage. A smooth black void at the heart of the auditorium, the impossibly large circular floor is unfettered by silly, antiquated things like arches and backdrops. Blue light plays upon the mist that hangs above it, obscuring the walls that you guess must exist somewhere back there in the darkness, giving this emptiest of spaces a tantalising aura of limitless possibility.
Kneehigh’s A Matter of Life and Death is the latest in a series of thought-provoking shows that seem fascinated by the cinema. For me, the last few months have been a thrilling exploration of the possible relationships between film and theatre in shows as diverse and exciting as Attempts on Her Life, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and now A Matter of Life and Death. For the critics, however, these shows have nothing in common other than the indignation they have caused, leaving in their wake a series of articles so poisonous that they came close to dissolving the pages they were printed on; Nicholas De Jongh’s venomous little tirade against ‘Miss Mitchell’ being the very worst of a bad bunch.
What these critics seem to have missed is that while they have been fossilising in their aisle seats the world has changed. We live in an era saturated, almost drowning, in cinema. For almost everyone growing up at any point in the last fifty years film and television are our frame of reference, theatre, an anachronistic curio. We understand implicitly the jump cut and the cross fade; we are more comfortable in the imaginary spaces of cinema than the enclosed rooms of the theatre. How then can theatre survive in this world? What can it do that cinema can’t?
In their stage version of Powell and Pressburger’s film Kneehigh offer some interesting answers to these questions by using the dauntingly vast Olivier auditorium in some joyously imaginative ways.
The first thing to note about this production is that it is not an adaptation. Nostalgic recollections of David Niven et. al. are rather tiresome. This is a new work in a new medium. And for once, theatre does feel entirely new in this re-telling of the story of a WWII airman who should have died after jumping from his plane without a parachute but who, through the combination of an administrative cock-up and some typically English weather, was not conducted up to heaven. For this reason he has the chance to fall in love with a woman he never should have met, while the heavenly authorities, not God but a delightfully stern matron, fret as to how they might resolve this worrying situation.
Kneehigh used this surreally charming wartime drama as a launch pad for a series of ever-more audacious, and consistently glorious set-pieces. The cavernous space of the Olivier acted as the perfect blank canvas, allowing the company to hastily construct impossible objects out of the utterly mundane; Bicycles and Staircases became a Lancaster bomber, the bare walls were suddenly transformed into a magnificent camera obscura, and a row of hospital beds flew upwards, forming a stairway to heaven. This is what theatre can do that film can’t. Gathered together in a darkened room, sharing this space of limitless possibility, the audience can, even wants to believe anything that is told to them. Everything (the songs, the dances, the sets, the actors) is so fabulously unreal (so theatrical) that it sets our collective imagination free to run riot. And imagination is what Kneehigh do like no one else around.
All of this is done with such heartwarming eagerness that you long to follow them on any flight of fancy they might make, whether that be a rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream that suddenly becomes a sassy song and dance number or a slow-motion, Matrix-style kung-fu table tennis match. It has a wonderful, childish quality that doesn’t feel at all contrived. Instead it adds a hauntingly wide-eyed perspective to the horror of a story that is at its heart about the tiny hope for love in a world jaded by so much coldly efficient death.
This is by no means a perfect show. At times the story telling flags, the acting suffers in such a vast auditorium (though not that of the wonderful Douglas Hodge), and the razzmatazz seems at times to be too nakedly to be there merely to drag the plot like a stubborn child from one big number to the next. But you forgive it these faults because it is an utterly loveable show. A show (and a company) that is in turn in love with its medium; with the immediacy, the intimacy, the collective joy and the unpredictability of theatre – all of which are present in the show's audacious coin-flipping finale, which had me surprised by how truly gripped I was by such a simple (almost gimmicky) trick.
For me, the daunting Olivier Auditorium has rarely tingled with such child-like creativity and joy. No amount of cinema comes near the experience.