Libby Purves travelled to the Chichester Festival Theatre to catch up with their new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
Chichester Festival Theatre
Almost the most magnificent part of Daniel Evans’ production is that it’s happening at all: despite the distanced glimmer of blue paper masks, Chichester affirms that big musical theatre is back with almost insane defiance: cast of 32, 16 part orchestra, singers who had to be rehearsed in visors, Ann Yee’s big wild ensemble choreography practiced at first in masks. Cheering and clapping started with the dimming of the lights, and at the end we were on our many feet. Audiences are glad to be back, performers gleeful, directors and producers nervous (four West End shows are currently suspended by Test ‘n Trace, with only hours of notice).
So the night was in itself a celebration but by no means a dumbly flippant one. Rodgers’ crashing romantic music and the big songs are better known now than the storyline – Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Hai, , Gonna Wash that man right outa my hair, Younger than Springtime. Some quail at putting it on, remembering the racial caricatures of earlier productions. US troops are occupying a Polynesian island in the WW2 conflict with Japan: Hammerstein and Logan’s book has nurse Nellie Forbush, blissfully in love with Emile the French planter, rejecting him in visceral disgust for having two children by a (now dead) “native” woman. “A shock to think of you with a -….it is born in me!”. And Lt Cable in turn decides that he can’t marry his lover Liat, daughter of the farouche camp-follower Bloody Mary, because he’s a Philadelphia boy. “Lesser breeds”, see..
But Evans and Ann Yee recognized – it’s archive fact – that in 1949 in American segregation, Rodgers and Hammerstein were making a powerful statement. Nellie and the Lt are wrong. Cable, heading on a suicidal mission in his despair, strikes up with the bitterest, least-remembered number “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught” about the ingraining of fear and hatred towards “people whose eyes are differently made.. skin of another shade”. Liat, almost silent in the text, is the ballerina Sera Maehara, Japanese-trained and a mesmerizing presence, dancing and moving with peerless, ancient grace like a daughter of the sun from a culture older than the whoopee knees-up romping of the Americans. Bloody Mary pleads for her with real maternal agony and none of the familiar twee or light tone about “Happy Talk”. As for male attitudes to women and the MeToo are, I have never seen a more threateningly macho take than Yee’s choreography of “Nothing like a Dame”. You’d want chaperones round that lot. The words are full of wittily pathetic longing, but these lads are dangerous.
Oh God, now you think it’s all terribly ‘woke’ and preachy (like the ’49 critic, a US Navy officer, who wanted rid of Cable’s bitter song about taught racism because it was like ‘a VD lecture’ and not fun). But it isn’t a sermon, I assure you; as a night out it is a happy riot. Gina Beck’s Nellie, at first a striding, robustly pretty naive Navy nurse, grows in character, romps and larks gorgeously, and belts out some of the most thrillingly fine low notes anywhere; Julian Ovenden is not only a fine actor but proves to have an immense, exciting operatic voice. Seabees and Ensigns are a roaring, storming ensemble, set-pieces like Honey Bun stopping the show with our glee; and the colours are set against sobering late reminders of the seriousness of the war and – with Emile’s peaceably doubtful remarks before his heroism – its limitations.
We know what you’re against, he says, “What are you FOR?” A question for all times.
SOUTH PACIFIC STREAMING
South Pacific will be available for streaming on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August, 3 September. Find out more here.