The 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, A Matter Of Life And Death, was a sweeping, romantic paean to the power of love, as well as an attempt to keep Anglo-American relations on an even keel. The inventive Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh, has taken the classic movie and put it on stage at the Olivier. Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience to see whether love can really conquer all…
Peter Carter (Tristan Sturrock), a dashing Second World War airman, is about to make a crash landing from his destroyed Lancaster bomber, and a pretty radio operator, June (Lyndsey Marshall) is trying to talk him down. Peter jumps from his plane without a parachute, wakes up on a beach when he should be dead, realises he is near where June lives and they meet and fall in love. His fall to earth has given him a head injury, and as he becomes more ill and loses consciousness, he imagines he is in a celestial court, appealing for his right to live. A simple story, the same story as the film, but Kneehigh takes this as a starting point and makes an enormous leap into the heights of imagination.
Emma Rice and Tom Morris have adapted the film into a dazzlingly beautiful and surreal tale of not just love, but the utter, desperate futility of war. As the play starts, the eerie sound of bells floats out over the auditorium and a series of white-clad nurses ride around the vast smoky, blue-lit Olivier stage on bicycles. A large metal structure, like the skeleton of a plane made from Meccano, is wheeled on with a band playing some funky bluesy-Latin beats. Hospital beds appear, with pyjama-clad soldiers reading, smoking and chatting, but before we can get used to the spectacle, suddenly there is Peter about to jump from his plane – beds burst into flame and buckets of fire are dotted around the front of the stage, the heat and noise confusing and disorientating.
There is almost always someone up in the air in this production, either climbing a rope or flying in a harness or, as in the particularly lovely scene where Peter and June fall in love, swinging in a bed across the stage. This is hardly surprising given the involvement of Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who plays Conductor 71, the person who is supposed to have taken Peter to the other world but loses him in an English pea-souper. Gardarsson’s young Icelandic company Vesturport created a spectacular aerial version of Romeo and Juliet. We first see Conductor 71 flying across the stage on a rope and out over the audience, while swearing very loudly. Instead of the dashing Frenchman of the film, we have a camp Norwegian magician who managed to drown in a bag of milk, and constantly tries to fool us into thinking he has disappeared by setting off party poppers.
When not flying around, the cast sings, plays instruments and dances; swing, tango, or a crazy game of ping-pong played with giant sticks with balls on the end. This is a very physical production, upholding the company’s tradition of constantly trying new ways of showing emotion or events. Torches used to light speakers at the beginning suddenly going up in the air and hanging there for the rest of the show, the stacks of books on wires descending to represent the library of esteemed neurologist Frank (Douglas Hodge) are typically delightful Kneehigh touches.
In the film, the dramatic court scene is played out in a vast white amphitheatre, but here the audience become those who have come to watch the appeal, while the various large structures of the set come together to form a frame for the prosecution and defence and a platform for the celestial judge. The witnesses for the prosecution present a compelling, sometimes devastating case. A group of women, British and German, killed in the bombing, confront him with the evidence of the consequences of his earthly actions and are surrounded by projections of burned out cities and lost families. It makes the final moments, where June ascends a heavenly staircase to prove her love all the more desperate and poignant.
Kneehigh wraps its message up in a production which is gorgeous and fascinating, but the point made here is clear: war is savage, random and cruel, and love might not always win.