In 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a film called ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, in which dashing RAF pilot Peter falls for June, an American Radio Operator who he ‘meets’ whilst his damaged aircraft is about to drop from the sky and he is destined for certain death. But due to an administrative foul up in Heaven he doesn’t die, but lives on to fall in love with June in the flesh, only to be told that he should have been killed in the crash and that he has to go upstairs and face the music after all. The ensuing appeal against this decision is a sweet meditation on life and death (Peter is actually in a coma, being operated on, his life in the balance). It was a great film, (it had David Niven in it for one thing) it was a celebration of life, love and also the Anglo-US alliance. In Emma Rice (who also directs the production) and Tom Morris’s adaptation for the NT and Kneehigh, it has become a po faced (but spectacular) anti war play, with a British June (we can’t have an American, because times have changed! That is what the adaptors have said, seriously), where death triumphs over love.
The trouble is that I want to like Kneehigh productions (they have interesting ways of working and often bring in a more diverse and younger audience), but I invariably find them shallow and obvious (Tristan and Yseult and Cymbeline were both in that category, whereas I actually enjoyed their 2004 version of The Bacchae, also directed by Rice). Here again, the whimsy wins out, this really is a silly and pointless overgrown spectacle, and the anti-American, naturally anti-war stance got my hackles up too (stopping Hitler was so wrong?).
The production is so self-consciously clever, with nurses cycling upside down to replicate the wings of a plane (and nurses cycling the right way up for no apparent reason), swinging beds, a movable band (who play an annoying mix of a mariachi music and soft rock), and a huge brigade of pyjama clad patients (part of an ostentatiously huge cast of 27, including 5 musicians) milling around, with the occasional bucket or bed fire to enliven the proceedings. It’s all very soulless and empty for me, forced cleverness, to try and prove some misanthropic doomed world view, not tell a rather sweet story as in the film. The acting was sometimes competent and sometimes bizarre, especially Gisli Orn Gardarsson as the incompetent ex-magician, Conductor 71, charged with bringing Peter back where he belongs. The sad thing is, that his gurning comical performance was embarrassingly unfunny, contrasting with his brilliant sensitive and un-flashy portrayal of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith last year.
This is a production full of sound and fury but signifying nothing very interesting at all, and at 135 minutes with no interval it far outstays its welcome