Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Is For Everybody

I've been a fan of Danny Boyle ever since I saw Trainspotting in the mid nineties - an original and moving journey through the dark side of drug addiction. Next, for me, came Slumdog Millionaire which I instantly loved: the colours and flavours (now I sound like a particle physicist) came across so powerfully that I almost failed to notice the plot. But I greatly enjoyed Boyle's head-on approach to poverty and middle-class India's resulting discomfiture with the movie. People emitted the usual whines about the West highlighting only negative aspects of India. And, in an effort to show the world how we can be simultaneously literal and illiterate, someone tried to convince slum dwellers in Bombay that a white man had called them "dogs"!

A couple of months ago I had a chance to see a movie of a theatrical production of Frankenstein staged by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London. This movie has had a limited distribution so far, and I got to see it at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bombay, but it has recently been distributed in theatres across the USA and you can read about it here.  You can also watch the trailer of the movie here, as well as the somewhat better trailer of the play here.

It so happens that I recently downloaded the original novel by Mary Shelley (along with a whole lot of other free literature to read using Kindle on my iPad) and finished reading it around April. In terms of literary style it's repetitive, hackneyed and overdone and came across to me as a little mediocre. But it compensates by the brilliance of its plot and the universal appeal of its horror story: a monster who is physically repulsive to his creator and the rest of mankind, and intelligent enough to appreciate this fact, is emotionally shattered and goes around vengefully killing everyone dear to his creator.

Now most people who haven't read the book think the monster is meant to be disgusting (they also think, incorrectly, that the monster is named "Frankenstein"). But if you read the book, it's not hard to pick up on Mary Shelley's hints that the monster is the hero of the tale, the one who has her sympathies. And in the play Boyle (and to be fair, Nick Dear who wrote the script) take this a step further. The play is largely presented in the monster's voice and devoted to his point of view. It focuses on the justice aspect: is it fair to create someone and then despise and reject him merely because of how he looks? What effect does this have on the person? Can we at least understand, if not completely approve of, the murderous trajectory he follows as a result? And the unspoken corollary: how should we judge the evil deeds of those who have suffered grievous injustice?

The opening scene has no counterpart in the book: we see a monster tumble out of a suspended translucent egg-like object and then wriggle and writhe on the stage for a good ten or fifteen minutes until he learns, all by himself, to use his limbs and walk. I saw this as a metaphor for a lot of things: evolution, physical maturity, emotional growth, intellectual achievement. You can view fragments of this in the trailer of the movie linked above. The entire production was a stunning achievement and kept popping into my head for a week or more after I saw it.

 Then a couple of days ago I watched what's been described as "the best movie that Danny Boyle never made", the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. If you haven't, you should certainly set aside a couple of hours for it. It's been reviewed to death in the media so I won't repeat it here, you can read this nice review in The Guardian.

I'll just highlight two things. One is the sensibility - self-deprecating, light-hearted and inclusive. Lots of children singing, some in their pyjamas, a pastiche depicting the evolution of Britain's landscape from green meadows to ugly chimneys, a review of British music over the decades, some comedy from Mr Bean, a symphony orchestra, a skit of the Queen with James Bond, and a nod to the disabled, to immigrants, to just ordinary people (and a few ordinary cows and sheep too). It's been rightly described as "brilliantly messy" and "bonkers". A Tory MP tweeted his dislike of the multicultural nature of the show and this made me even happier than the negative reception of Slumdog in India! The slogan of the show was "This Is For Everybody" and in today's increasingly mean and narrowing world I found it very refreshing. Here is a nice article by someone else who did, too.

The second thing I liked, was a little story I read later. Given that rehearsals for this gigantic ceremony must have gone on for many many months, and involved tens of thousands of people, there were almost no leaks until virtually the last moment. How come a video of the rehearsal taken on someone's mobile phone didn't make it to YouTube? Frank Cottrell Boyce, the scriptwriter for the ceremony, had this to say:

`Danny could have asked for camera phones to be banned from the stadium or for people to sign confidentiality agreements. Instead he asked people nicely to save the surprise. "The volunteers are the best of us," he said. "This show belongs to them. This country belongs to them." '

I love this story and I wish that leaders of any sort learn this lesson. When you want people to support your efforts, place your trust in them first.

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