Why mess with a masterpiece? To bring something new to it. That must have been the thinking behind transferring Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 classic British movie “A Matter of Life and Death” (“Stairway to Heaven” in the U.S.) to stage. Thus while the plot about a WWII airman poised between heaven and Earth remains largely intact, the storytelling is exuberantly different. Alas, although this co-production between celebrated Cornish theater company Kneehigh and the National teems with theatricality, it rarely achieves theatrical life.
The movie is a surreal wartime romantic fantasy crossed with a philosophical debate about a brave fighter pilot who simultaneously falls fatally to Earth and in love with a plucky radio operator. In both style and content, it’s a perfect marriage of fantasy and reality.
Working via the audience’s imagination more than film does, theater would appear to be well suited to this particular story. And director Emma Rice (and co-adaptor Tom Morris) have certainly utilized the National’s plentiful resources. What they haven’t done is marshal them into an effective whole.
The show’s almost profligate tone is set in the extended opening sequence. Not since “The Pajama Game” have so many actors been seen loitering with intent in stripy nightwear. Carrying torches whose beams pierce the sepulchral, blue-lit mist on the wide-open Olivier stage, the vast cast (of 27 including hardworking musicians) wheel hospital beds into different configurations or circle the action as a fleet of wartime nurses on sweetly old-fashioned bicycles.
“What do you think the other world is like?” asks airman Peter Carter (Tristan Sturrock) of his newly beloved June (Lyndsey Marshall). That question strikes at the heart of the play and its production. Most plays have to create a world. This one has to conjure two.
In the movie, to switch from the supersaturated colors of Earth to the sleek black-and-white shimmer of heaven, all the filmmakers had to do was make a cut. Here, the cast has to move set pieces and the production team has to constantly rebuild and newly sustain the tone.
Almost every transition is cumbersome. To cover them, Stu Barker’s score turns from soundtrack to song, sometimes even fully-fledged production numbers. Diverting though some are — there’s an enjoyable ensemble lindy hop — pace and tension evaporate as the plot is constantly left hanging.
The problem is exacerbated by Mark Henderson’s lighting. A master of atmosphere, he is less strong at punctuating moments or isolating action. That, in part, is due to Rice’s directorial intent of showing auds everything rather than resorting to hidden stagecraft.
Although it’s initially interesting watching actors in charge of stagecraft, the rewards start to diminish fairly rapidly. And in a show running more than two hours without intermission, that’s a serious problem.
Height is the dimension the production utilizes the most. Props, lights, beds and several of the actors are flown during the show, not least Gisli Orn Gardarsson as the conductor between Earth and heaven.
His is the character most effectively re-imagined. An actor/aerialist, Gardarsson’s physical verve — he bungee-jumps into the auditorium and slips down and clambers up ropes — is arresting. Dressed in stripy tights, goggles and helmet, he also has a ridiculous bombast that’s very funny.
Yet accentuating the theater’s enormous height and depth makes the actors appear marooned. The major casualties are the two leads who have to too hard to project not only their voices but their characters.
The exception is Douglas Hodge who manages to inject the piece with sorely needed dynamism. As the doctor who treats and defends Peter, he has superbly focused energy.
Rice never stints on ideas, but the piece feels like a first draft in which absolutely every idea has been included. Some, like idiosyncratic underscoring for eerie hand bells and ghostly vibraphone, pay off handsomely. But too many — especially the consciously anachronistic video footage of contemporary London — swamp the piece with unhelpful allusions and clog up the storytelling.
By the downbeat new ending, it’s clear the production has bitten off more than it can chew.