Caliban’s dream: On Danny Boyle’s London opening ceremonies

Some people have started to notice how weird it was to have Kenneth Branagh, in the garb of a Victorian industrialist, speak in the voice of Shakespeare’s Caliban during the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies.  Columbia professor James Shapiro, for example, noticed the “odd choice,” but he does not even attempt to explain it: “The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”

I admit that I had the same reaction to the passage at first: Caliban as a costume-drama oppressor, pounding out his speech in smiling ignorance?  Seriously?  And this after opening with “Jerusalem” by William Blake, England’s great poet of the double edge?

But as the ceremonies went on, I saw that Danny Boyle had been many steps ahead of Shapiro and me.  The ceremonies were about protest and dissent, as Alex Woolf argues in a perceptive Sports Illustrated piece.  With a pointed celebration of the NHS, a tribute to suffragism, even a Beatles-linked nod to 1968, Boyle used the occiasion to turn the pageantry of the Beijing ceremony against itself: “he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed.”

Woolf is right, but Boyle’s work also involved a presentation of British cultural history that embraced the double-edged weirdness of Branagh’s Caliban moment.  I’ll return to that.

The opening song, the anthem “Jerusalem,” takes its words from William Blake’s Milton.  It’s at the bottom of this page.  Often pounded out as if a resolute celebration of the “green and pleasant land,” it is a poem of questioning and longing, of uncertain truths and hopes unlikely to be realized in the contemporary England of “dark Satanic Mills.”

The darkness of Blake’s words give substance to another recent, celebrated London theatrical production: Jez Butterworth’s wonderful Jerusalem, which likewise opens with a haunting rendition of the anthem.  Butterworth’s hero, Johnny Byron, a force of chaos who limps like his poetic namesake, faces down real-estate developers by drumming and chanting an appeal to ancient forces of the British woods.

Boyle’s piece, too, involves a drummer (noted for her physical disability, even) unleashing drumbeats that resemble and oppose the machinery tearing up the wilderness and wildness of British myth.  And in this context, Boyle’s emphasis on labor as well as protest—the nurses of the NHS, those Victorian workers who gave the forging of the Olympic rings a Blakean darnkess—the use of Caliban’s speech makes sense.

Caliban celebrates his island’s music to protest Prospero’s land grab.  Productions and criticism of The Tempest have for centuries supported readings of Prospero as a benevolent reformer or as a cruel imperialist, Caliban as a force of nature and authenticity or of crude violence needing external government.  Putting Caliban’s words in the Prospero-like form of the Victorian industrialist adds another layer: is Branagh’s businessman a clueless appropriator of words as well as labor?  Or does Branagh’s blank smile mask his knowing, ruthless suppression of the bleak truths of industrial progress?  Either way, the invocation of Jerusalem and The Tempest places the 2012 Olympics in a history of wealthy men’s machinery reconstructing the places claimed by British citizens and colonial subjects.

(And was it also a devilishly clever takedown of Branagh as a popularizer of British cultural heritage, or was Branagh in on the joke?  I can’t tell, and I love the ambiguity.)

Then Rowan Atkinson entered to provide Boyle’s most playful set piece, the parody of Chariots of Fire.  As you’ll remember, the scene was centered on Atkinson’s dream of beating the Chariots of Fire runners in a beach race, a victory enabled by some foul play and the use of a motorcar.  The moral of the story, as I take it, was this: British beach-training doesn’t win running races anymore, but cleverness, humor, and the odd elbow might achieve some victories.

The first part of the ceremonies then wrapped up with the relentlessly referential song-and-dance sequence surrounding the aggressively brainless story of young love and a lost cell phone.  “How does finding a girl’s cellphone enable you to call her?” you might have asked.  I sure did.  But there was a clever answer: you can call her, or do pretty much anything you want, if you have Tim Berners-Lee behind the curtain creating the magic, his technology altering the nature of the scene as fundamentally as Rowan Atkinson’s car.

The sexiness, drive, and visual slickness of the big performance really come not from the notably ethnic young people and their electric grins but from the middle-aged nerd with a fast computer and a net worth of $50 million.  Are we supposed to receive that sequence as silly or devastatingly clever?  Fabulously multiracial or uncomfortably controlling, with Berners-Lee a modern Prospero?  About British ingenuity or big-money Big Brother?

Such questions create the unsettling, self-undermining effects of Boyle’s opening ceremonies, which used the tools of art to wriggle free from simple nationalist celebration and pompously Olympian self-congratulation.  They culminated with rings of fire echoing the Victorian millwork, as the torch was lit to the tune of “Caliban’s Dream,” an angelically innocent song by a band called Underworld.   I think Blake would approve.  I know I do.