“Thanks for the warm-up,” the billboards announcing Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games have been cheekily announcing all over the place; and last night, of course, they kicked off with the Opening Ceremony.
I all but missed the Olympics themselves, owing to the little matter of getting married in New York and then honeymooning in Provincetown, before returning home and heading straight to the Edinburgh Fringe. But I caught passing snippets on TV, from a New York pizza joint where I watched some gymnastics, or the live public broadcast in the square opposite Usher Hall on the Lothian Road in Edinburgh (which, this being Scotland, meant a few huddled people watching in the rain for the most part).
But last night I finally entered not only into the Olympics spirit, I made my first trip to the Olympic Park at Stratford to attend the opening ceremony in person. And even if the bar queues were longer than those at a West End theatre and the procession of the athletes (from 166 competing nations) sometimes threatened to resemble a Trevor Nunn show in the vast time it took to unfold, it is not unless you’re there that you appreciate the full incredible scale of both the place and the massive show that was put on to mark this opening.
The rain held off, too (even though a recurring motif of the show was of umbrellas, which happily weren’t needed). And it’s a testament, as always, to the vitality and expertise of British theatre, that things went both as smoothly and imaginatively as they did. It’s no accident that the co-artistic directors and principal creative team (including designer Jon Bausor, currently represented at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park by his designs for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ragtime; music director Martin Koch and choreographer Kevin Finnan) are all drawn from the world of theatre.
To declare an interest — and the reason I was there at all — Bradley Hemmings (who co-directed it with Graeae’s Jenny Sealey) is a friend. I interviewed him years ago (over a lunch that was appropriately held at the Menier Chocolate Factory) about the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDF) that he not only founded himself 18 years ago but continues to run, and he’s such a keen theatregoer that we’ve constantly run into each other since.
Bradley’s partner Mathew Russell, who was also previously executive director of the GDF and is now executive director of Watford Palace, joins him on going to the theatre at every available opportunity; there doesn’t seem to be a weekend where they’re not heading to Chichester or Brighton to catch up a show. I remember most of all running into them both one late night in Edinburgh and managing to warn them off seeing a show called Audience, one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen on the fringe.
But last night I’m thrilled that I was part of the audience of this most inspiring and spectacular of all shows. It took some nine months of disaster-ridden previews before the producers of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark managed to open it on Broadway; last night, Hemmings and Seelig had just one performance to get it right, and get it right they did thrillingly, with more aerial stunts than Spider-man ever had, and a coup de théâtre at the end that eclipsed (but wittily referenced) the opening of the Olympics.
Never mind a stand-in stunt-double for the Queen flying into the stadium as the main Olympics had; last night saw Royal Marine Commando Joe Townsend — who lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan — fly the Paralympics torch into the stadium. It was as extraordinary and moving a sight as I’ve ever seen and I don’t mind admitting I cried. But if the symbolism was huge, so was the pervasive message of the evening, exemplified by the presence of Stephen Hawking and his own narration that spoke of the infinite possibilities of the universe and reaching an understanding of how it came to be.
Anything is possible; and this show gave living proof to that fact. And, as Lyn Gardner put it in a Guardian blog yesterday, it was “the biggest showcase of disabled arts the world has ever witnessed.” She quotes Jenny Sealey telling her into an interview, “I want people to see a great show and come out saying: ‘Bloody hell, I never knew there were so many disabled people’. This is our chance not to be hidden any more.” And as Lyn continues, “Tonight there will be nowhere to hide for disability arts, and I’m confident it will rise to the occasion - possibly quite literally.”
That’s a good reminder that the Paralympics aren’t just about visibility for disabled sportsmen and artists over the next ten days but about long-term consciousness raising and opportunities. Just a few weeks ago in Edinburgh one of the most extraordinary shows I saw was Fat, a performance piece by gay disabled actor Pete Edwards about searching out his heart’s desire — in his case, the love of a fat man.
The show wasn’t easy to watch, which itself throws down the gauntlet to your own prejudices, but an utterly inspiring one; and it was striking and sad that the performance I saw at the Pleasance was one of the most sparsely attended I’ve ever seen there. But here was a man whose body and voice may not be able to do as he wishes, but is still determined to communicate and does with spellbinding intensity. As he says on his website, “As an artist with Cerebral Palsy, which includes a differing speech pattern, I don’t wish to be defined by my disability, but rather from my abilities that have arisen from my situation.”
And last night the abilities of disabled artists and sportsmen and women were vibrantly displayed in a show that also included appearances by Ian McKellen and a finale rendition of Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles that proved that this little bit of Broadway has a message for everyone.