|HEAVEN CAN WAIT
|By Clive Hirschhorn
The wit, subtley and sophistication of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death (called Stairway to Heaven in America) has been coarsened and pummeled out of recognition in the Kneehigh Theatre adaptation for the National Theatre.
Reworked by Tom Morris and Emma Rice, this 1946 story of airman Peter Carter, who, in 1945 baled out over a foggy English channel without a parachute and lived to tell the tale, rarely evokes the period nor the haunting quality that made the film so memorable.
And the narrative is nothing if not haunting. For, as you may recall, Carter (Tristan Sturrock), should - to all intents and purposes - be dead. And he would have been had the messenger of death, Conductor 71, who has been sent from the afterworld to escort him back to the other side, not lost his way in the fog.
Though Carter has miraculously survived his plunge, his brain has been affected and he is in a coma and/or clearly delusional. What he imagines is a raging battle in heaven for his body and soul as his surgeon (Andy Williiams) makes a case for keeping him alive.
In the movie the "trial's" witness for the prosecution is a lawyer representing the spirit of a Boston patriot killed in the Revolutionary War; on stage it is Carter's deceased father, widows from the Coventry and Dresden bombings and Shakespeare who are questioning his right to live.
In Powell and Pressburger's script, what clinches the case for the defense is love. Moments before Carter bails out of his burning plane, he has been in radio communication with a WAC called June (Lyndsey Marshal) with who he is smitten. As she is with him.
In the film, the surgery performed on Carter's brain is a success and the patient survives; on stage, a flick of the coin decides his fate. At some performances he dies, at others he lives. That's the major change Kneehigh have made in their adaptation, and, on the occasions where the hero succumbs, the original message celebrating the potency of love, is lost. Death, rather than Life is the first item on this particular agenda.
In the film June is an American - which helps fuel the prosecution's case that an American woman and an Englishman should not marry; in this version she's English.
The film, briefly touches on a village group rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream; on stage this is expanded to incorporate the suicide of the actor playing Bottom. Don't ask.
Emma Rice's direction and Bill Mitchell's design go out of their way to be as different from anything encountered in the film, with the mise en scene at times resembling Cirque du Soleil meets Theatre Complicite. Instead of the emissary of death dressed up as a foppish French aristo, he's now a singularly unfunny Norwegian illusionist and escapologist (Gisli Orn Gardarsson).
Bicycles and hospital beds are busily employed throughout, and only Rice's recreation of the film's memorable ping-pong sequence is reinvented with the kind of imaginative flair lacking in the rest of the production.
No performance truly stands out, which, in an ensemble piece, is how it should be.
In the end though, Kneehigh's frenetic physical production not only fails to find a theatrical equivalent for the film's wit, subtlety and soiphistication, but also its eccentricity, its quirkiness and its unique charm.