Olympic opening ceremonies tend to be orgies of nationalistic sentiment, choreographed with the propagandizing artistry of a Las Vegas-styled Leni Riefenstahl.
“Marvel at our unparalleled history,” said the Greeks at the 2004 games in Athens. “Stand in awe of our multitudinous might,” said the Chinese at the 2008 competition in Beijing.
The British pageant had to tread more carefully given the country’s imperial history and modern self-consciousness. Too much muscle-flexing in this post-colonial era wouldn’t have advanced Britain’s 21st century image as a deluxe global marketplace, welcoming to all who have the financial wherewithal to get past security.
Director Danny Boyle, best known for his films “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” and still winning accolades for his mesmerizing National Theatre of Great Britain stage production of “Frankenstein,” delivered an opening spectacle for the 2012 Olympics that celebrated both the eccentricity and enlightenment that are fascinatingly entwined in Britain’s cultural DNA.
Centuries of jingoistic flag-planting were whitewashed but there was a sharp focus on the individual even as fictional characters did their best to steal the show.
The theatrical expectations were higher than usual. London is a world capital of theater—some might say the world capital of theater—thanks to its long tradition of passionate playgoing and governmental arts subsidy. Armchair critics, totaling about 1 billion worldwide, might have taken issue with the degree of muddle, which lent the production an air of arty disorder that the Chinese wouldn’t have tolerated.
Certainly on a visual level it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as Beijing, where even the weather was kept under state control. But what distinguished “Isles of Wonder,” as the opening ceremony was titled, was the way history was given human lineaments.
A tale of the country’s journey from rural innocence to industrial guilt to digital giddiness was related in the manner of the world’s most elaborate pop-up book, yet the faces of the masses are what left the deepest impression.
This wasn’t the occasion to reflect on actual horror. The commemoration of the fallen from World War I was tasteful, aesthetically tearful, unreal.
But the plight of workers slaving away in soot and sweat was spotlighted. Societal progress, if you can call it that, is backbreaking, entailing the sacrifice of generations made up of people who look an awful lot like you and me. Boyle wasn’t afraid to impart moments of stillness amid all the percussive chaos to connect us to our forgotten predecessors.
A tribute to Britain’s National Health Service must have seemed extremely curious to an American viewership conditioned to think of healthcare as a political wedge issue instead of a basic human right. But there was little time for earnestness.
The children’s hospital setting transformed into a world of storybook enchantment, with Captain Hook, Mary Poppins and Lord Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” franchise swooping in and apparently spoiling for war.
Transitions between whimsical sequences left NBC’s often baffled Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira debating whether some of the sights were “cute or creepy.” (In fairness, they had every reason to be confused.) But the orchestral waterfall and expressive lighting worked hard to keep an audience in an awakened state of dreamland, where logic is held happily in abeyance and a monster can easily be mistaken for an old friend.
Aristotle in the “Poetics” informs us that spectacle and song are the least important elements of good tragedy. For Olympic opening ceremonies, however, they take priority over his all-important plot. Narrative just has a hard time getting heard above the din, and it’s too bad the social media romantic saga of Boyle’s production wasn’t ditched.
Surely a less cumbersome hook could have been found for showcasing Britain’s astonishing pop music legacy that extends from before the Beatles to beyond Adele. The tale of two texting lovers began to seem like nothing more than a choreographic obstruction between hits.
If speaking performers, such as Kenneth Branagh, reciting lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” couldn’t resist overdoing it in their final seconds on the world stage, at least the queen was on hand to open the Games as though calling William, Kate and Pippa for afternoon tea. But then she had just parachuted in with James Bond, as a droll film led us to believe, so no point in making a fuss over a little ceremonial obligation.
Anyway, those famous corgis of hers were waiting patiently at the palace for her return, and that comforting fact sums up why this opening ceremony was emotionally satisfying even when theatrically topsy-turvy. The nation may have undergone tremendous change in the 60 years of her majesty’s reign, but British constancy (perhaps best epitomized by Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude”) has a reassuring human touch.