Oh Danny boy, oh Danny Boyle, we love you so
A few weeks ago I read this speech by Sam West: Shift Happens
A few weeks ago a large camp of us in Britain were feeling alienated from our country, from our politicians, and from the Olympics. My East London dwelling friends talked about the Olympic site being imposed on their city, with its own security, shutting out the local community instead of integrating them. Graffiti that contained layers of history being wiped out.
Sam West describes the scenario:
Once the two camps hit mutual incomprehension and are no longer able to recognise each other as human, the door is open to real exploitation and hatred.
And that’s where we, as artists, come in. Because that alienation isn’t just a failure of government, it’s a failure of imagination.
Which is where Danny Boyle came in. The opening ceremony was a triumph of the imagination.
Nothing is as good as a story which belongs to its audience. (Sam West)
And the audience wasn’t the Olympic officials, the official sponsers, Simon Cowell – the audience was the British, but more specifically, East Londoners.
Funnily enough West also said:
I want us to take pride in the NHS, schools, museums, libraries, Universities, the BBC. And of course, in local theatres.
If the point of making political theatre is to change people, attitudes, views on fundamental issues, The Opening Ceremony succeeded. It transformed those of us who had been skeptical about the London Olympics takeover into proud-to-be-British Olympic enthusiasts. Danny Boyle showed us that the Olympics is not (just) about corporate sponsorship, but about people.
We saw performances by artists we respect, artists who have been working on their craft for years, rather than those plucked from a talent contest and molded into something neutral. – Akram Khan, Dizzee Rascal, Evelyn Glennie… And then there was Bond and the parachuting Queen, Mr Bean and the keyboard fart.
In his diaries John Cage wrote: “Don’t try to change anything, you will only make matters worse”
My husband asked Carlos Monsiváis, the Mexican writer and political activist whether theatre could change society and he answered:
“Individual efforts will always be that – individual efforts”
But I’m not sure you could describe the opening ceremony as an individual effort.
While we were trying to tweet something witty in between throwing shoes at the TV in glee, Aidan Burley was harnessing the power of twitter to fume about ‘multicultural crap’:
Ignoring the bomb for a moment – The Opening Ceremony was a montage, a cut-up text on a huge scale….and was opened by Kenneth Branagh quoting The Tempest….I’m not sure ‘to be or not to be’ in the middle of Dizzee Rascal would have worked.
He then tweeted in response to the response to his first tweet:
Seems my tweet has been misunderstood. I was talking about the way it was handled in the show, not multiculturalism itself
– Suggesting multiculturalism is something that must be ‘handled’ – as in, one water fountain for whites another for everyone else? As in, a few are fine but let’s make sure us whites are the majority….or as in:
This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.(Daily Mail)
John Walker pulls this apart brilliantly on botherer.org
It’s a horribly written sentence, so it’s not clear if he’s deliberately only referring to the “white middle-aged mother” as such, and not the “black father”, but it wouldn’t be particularly surprising. But what does “educated” have to do with it? Does he believe that mixed-race couples can only be stupid people? That education would prevent such a thing happening? And what about “happy”? If they weren’t educated but happy, presumably that’s because they’re too stupid to know how awful their lives must be? But as soon as they get some smarts, there’s no chance of happiness, right? John Walker
If we particularly noticed the number of non white performers on stage, the mixed race couple, the number of women, the occasional wheelchair user, the signing choir, the lesbian kiss (which actually I blinked and missed) – if we particularly noticed these things it’s because we’re not used to seeing our society represented on TV. It’s true that in Devon (where I live) a cross-section of the population will be mostly white….but this ceremony was representing East London not rural Devon. And anyway, I happen to be one half of an “educated” “happy” mixed race marriage.
Someone tweeted that this is why politicians should not use twitter. Someone replied that this is exactly why politicians should use twitter.
The Daily Mail have pulled the article that John Walker quotes. So that’s a third proof of the power of theatre.
I think Sam West’s speech poses a question about what political theatre is now. Lecturing an audience doesn’t provoke change. Showing the audience how things are doesn’t provoke change. Showing people protesting and dreaming of utopia doesn’t help – although Monsiváis says “maintaining utopia amongst one’s convictions is a pre-requisite for good mental health”.
So we need a different way of making political theatre. By celebrating the NHS Danny Boyle made a stronger point than by showing a protest against NHS cuts. By using spectacle, music and humour, he jump started our energy beyond the point of intellectual engagement – making us want to share the experience immediately, making us want to get up and do something.
Michael Billington, esteemed Guardian critic wrote ‘State of the Nation’ – a book which charts theatre across sixty years – post-war to post-Iraq. He explores the way theatre reflects politics and society, and what theatre reveals about our nation. So he would appear to be the ideal critic to discuss the importance of the Opening Ceremony.
However, his ‘review’ is rather odd. He gives Danny Boyle three stars. Why is an opening ceremony given stars at all? “Imaginatively, it left something to be desired”, he says.
He mourns the lack of coherency and the fragmented nature of the narrative, the ‘shifts in tone’. He critiques the show as if it were, or as if it should have been, a three act play with one theme and a message (preferably delivered in the form of a speech at some point during the night with something quotable for the review). His own summary of what the ceremony might mean is absolutely lacking in imagination. He performs what is described in this blog as a ‘category error’.
I’ve never been sure whether theatre has the power to provoke a change in society. But so far it looks like the opening ceremony has exposed a racist politician (we already knew he was racist after the Nazi thing, but somehow he was still a politician so needed re-exposing); it has forced the Daily Mail to question its views, first adjust, and then pull an article; it got the first gay kiss onto TV in homophobic countries; it has transformed skepticism about the Olympics into optimism; it has made a point about the value of the NHS (and therefore the danger of cuts). It may also have proved a point about equality and diversity on stage – that it’s not to tick boxes, it’s to make great theatre. It demonstrates the power of theatre…
And most of all, it demonstrates the importance of funding the arts.