The Opening Ceremony & Political Theatre

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.

photo: Sid Bose

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’:

Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!  (@AidanBurleyMP) 

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

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.

10 thoughts on “The Opening Ceremony & Political Theatre

  1. Hear hear Hannah! By way of a small personal example: pre-ceremony my wife was a cynical, sports-deriding anti-sentimentalist – post-ceremony, she has been poring over the Guardian Olympics guide and telling me we absolutely have to watch the Paralympic Rugby. Yay Olympics/theatre/political statement. As for Billington, somebody should hit him over the head and tell him to stop applying his ‘one size fits all’ review to EVERY SINGLE THING HE SEES. Hmph.

  2. Excellent blog post here Hannah. Good critique of the critiques. I was surprised and delighted by the content of the opening ceremony with its many facets and messages and it was great to see so many volunteers obviously enjoying every moment and taking the stage back from the corporate sponsors. The choice of music was wonderfully eclectic and often brilliant, and to orchestrate the Chariots of Fire with Rowan Atkinson was a stroke of genius – the kids just loved that! So sad to hear NBC failed to screen the 7/7 tribute – this was a dance number that all americans (and Nato!) should have seen. It was both spectaclar and moving. (and I saw the lesbian kiss – superb!)

  3. I’m currently watching the opening ceremony on iplayer, as we were in the middle of a field on Friday night and missed it. I’m deeply cynical and apathetic about the Olympics (if it’s possible to be both at the same time!) ie I don’t care about sport AT ALL. I really don’t care who can run fastest, jump furthest etc. I’m annoyed by the amount of money spent on the whole shebang, particularly when not only the Arts but also crucial public services are being slashed in the UK. Facebook friends had posted about how good the ceremony was, and I was curious to know what Danny Boyle had done, which is why I decided to watch it. Loved the theatre of it, the spectacle. Loved the bravery of making the NHS so prominent a part of it; because yes, if you ask people what puts the “Great” into “Britain,” the NHS is right up there. And I think you’re right – in celebrating the NHS, Danny Boyle (? you put Sam West at this point, but I’m fairly sure you meant Danny!) drives its importance home in a way that made me want to jump out and yell “Why aren’t we fighting harder for this?” So perhaps theatre which celebrates rather than protests could be a valid way forward – but already I can hear questions forming about audience – who are we writing/performing for? how do we get our work to the “right” audience, if there is such a thing, and if it’s even desirable… ahhh, I’ll shut up. And here’s the BUT: I still don’t care about watching any of the Olympic events. Had the Queen really jumped out of the helicopter, I still wouldn’t be tuning in to see the swimming/running/jumping/whatever. No converts in this household!

  4. Katherine, when you ask ‘who are we writing/performing for? how do we get our work to the “right” audience’ I completely understand where you’re coming from. Of course it’s important for a message to be well thought-out and precise, in its construct and its delivery. But the BBC reported that 27 million Brits tuned in to watch the live broadcast of the ceremony, meaning 27 million Brits saw Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS. I think (and obviously I don’t know the director’s thoughts!) that the people who HAD to see this particular section of the ceremony are the people who use it, i.e. the British public. As Hannah said, ‘by celebrating the NHS Danny Boyle made a stronger point than by showing a protest against NHS cuts’ and I hope enough people went away and considered how fortunate we all are to have a free health service. And I’m so glad David Cameron was at the ceremony to see ‘NHS’ in lights and at the centre of everyone’s attention, being celebrated and upheld, as you say, as something that really does make Britain great.

    Hannah, thank you so much for your article, I really enjoyed reading it. I saw a few of Aiden Burley’s tweets on Friday evening but found myself laughing at a lot of them. Dan Rebellato had some brilliant retorts, too.

  5. Thanks all for reading!
    I’m a fan of athletics in general – gymnastics, running, high jump and pole vault – and most other things too. I like seeing the different bodies that the athletes in different sports have, I like the way athletes’ bodies are so completely for their sport, not for being gawped at and decorated, and the dedication and single-minded passion that sports require… So I would have watched the olympics anyway, but found the pre-olympic rubbish of sponsorship, branding, and the way the site was imposed on the city was giving a bad taste to the whole thing, certainly haven’t felt that ‘proud to be British’ sense for a very long time (actually can’t remember ever having felt that). Even if you don’t like sports, the opening ceremony was great as it reawakened a delight in this country….combatted this sense of alienation…I agree it’s sickening how little money is put into the arts comparatively, but again, what was great about the ceremony is I think it made a point about what the arts can do when funded properly, the way theatre can represent a country and provoke change and excitement…of course we can only do that on a small scale with our small audiences and small pots of funding, but….we can do that on a small scale….
    (I love Dan Rebellato’s tweets too – can anyone solve the mystery of how/when he gets his plays written?!)

  6. Thanks for your post on this, Hanna. It is vital to reflect about things like this and I believe part of the achievements you mentioned, come from people daring to say what they think.
    You have touched many issues I feel strongly about but it will be unfair to comment on all that here. But what I can say is .. that I personally have been very uncomfortable with the Olympics, because I know the international “partners” (Coca-cola, McDonald, Procter & Gamble) and part of the national ones (British Petroleum & Adidas) are companies with a large record of overriding human rights, destroying wildlife and damaging the environment. Sponsoring these types of events helps them to show a “kind” face and to hide the pain they are causing every day all around the world..
    Then, I felt ‘obliged’ to watch online the Olympic opening ceremony – so I can understand what you’re saying here(!) and yes, I agree with you it was a tremendous show (although, sadly, I didn’t enjoy it that much esthetically) and the NHS element was genius and very, very important.
    However.. I would challenge the perception that, a massive event like that, with all the costs that has required – from where the money comes from, to the amount of money spent on it- is somehow better because they used Art.
    (I am actually concerned that 80.000 artists were playing for hours without being paid – would they do that to “politicians”?)
    I believe Art, when it comes from the heart (they use to call it “true art”) will be always making a difference, provoking change..and being political.
    And as social change does not happens overnight or by massive crowds changing all at the same time.. small scale, small audiences, small projects (when done with heart) ARE seeds for the change we so much need.
    Keep your heart warm 😉

      1. Ah! Of course! I should’ve known you were in Edinburgh at this time of year! Hope it’s all going well up there. Looking forward to reports…! On the Olympic theme, I have to agree with Anairda; if the arts were a truly valid part of our cultural identity, they’d have paid all the performers…but it is highly doubtful there would have been any theatre involved in the ceremony if they had to pay them all, because then they’d have had no money left for the actual sports! ‘Sports’ and ‘arts’ are often victims of similar shortfalls in funding in this country. The visible difference, is that sport has gained investment through sponsorship (advertising/commercial value), where theatre hasn’t really. It is a bit odd to me that quite a few of the Olympic corporate sponsors also happen to be companies that promote products which are notoriously ‘bad for our health’, and I personally felt that while some of the opening ceremony was meaningful, other sequences where rather cheesy and at times, the ‘cultural diversity’ did seem to be a little bit tokenistic. I was mildly amused at the dance sequence which charted our Nation’s very bad adaptations of dance styles (and musical influences) from across the globe. But everyone looked like they were having fun, so I say fair play to Danny Boyle and his team for pulling off such a massive theatrical undertaking. It wasn’t always aesthetically beautiful, but it was the first time I’ve ever seen so many Brits co-operating for one common cause, and choreographing that many professional performers would be a challenge, so to do it with people from everywhere, with varied levels of performance abilities is a massive achievement in itself. I’m not really a fan of many Sports, but I am proud of the fact that, through the Olympics (and the queen’s various parties this year) we have finally been given ‘permission’ as a Nation of people, to be proud of our country, our cultural diversity and our collective achievements ‘in public’.Plus, It’s nice to see our country acknowledging we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves!

  7. Hello again, properly this time,

    I agree, and disagree, with some of your points….you both mention the non-paid artists thing – here’s an article on it:
    – They are not really non-paid artists, they are volunteers. The professionals were paid, other than the mega famous ones which I think is fair enough.
    It’s true Anairda, that the changes I mentioned were as a result of individuals speaking out – but they wouldn’t have had the platform or the trigger to speak out if it wasn’t for the ceremony in the first place – I mean, plenty of people already campaign on these issues (and I’m not saying that they don’t cause change, they do). But in this example, the ceremony, with its mainstream reach, brought a couple of things to the surface.
    And I wish I agreed with you about the impact of the small low budget art performances, but I don’t really. – Goes back to what Monsivais said: Individual efforts will always be individual efforts. The small scale works are watched by audiences already ‘converted’. At least in this country. Looking elsewhere maybe it’s different due to different political situations – e.g Belarus Free Theatre. – There, just making their theatre is a political act….much to ponder.
    Thank you both for reading and sharing thoughts,

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