A Matter of Life and Death

“A Matter of Life and Death”
Presented in association with Kneehigh Theatre, based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice

Tristan Sturrock – Peter, Lyndsey Marshal – June, Craig Johnson – Bob, Debbie Korley – Girl, Douglas Hodge – Frank, Andy Williams – Dr McEwen, Chike Okonkwo – Mr Archer, Mike Shepherd – Harold, Gisli Orn Gardarsson – Conductor 71, Tamzin Griffin – Chief Recorder, Stuart McLoughlin – First Prosecutor

Ensemble Musicians: Stu Barker, Pete Judge, Dominic Lawton, Alex Vann, Michael Vince

Director Emma Rice, Set designer Bill Mitchell, Costume designer Vicki Mortimer, Lighting designer Mark Henderson, Sound designer Gareth Fry, Projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington


Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 12 May, 2007
Venue: Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London

The 1940s and ‘50s gave us a body of films produced by The Archers, the company formed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This period was the most productive of the two film-men’s working lives. It was a period that produced such great British films as “The life and death of Colonel Blimp”, “A Canterbury Tale”, “I know where I’m going”, “A matter of life and death”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Red Shoes” and “Gone to Earth”, among others, which, despite the occasional lack of taste, were quite unlike any other British films being produced at the time. They had style, often a quality lacking in the film output of UK studios. Sometimes they went just too far, as in “The Tales of Hoffmann”, from the Offenbach opera, and “Oh Rosalinda!”, an unsuccessful attempt to film Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus”, which were flops but stylish ones to boot. At least Powell and Pressburger tackled difficult subjects with an artistic panache absent elsewhere.

Quite why the Kneehigh Theatre wanted to put such a cinematic film as “A matter of life and death” onto a stage is a moot point. After all, the review in “Tribune”, the socialist newspaper, said: “This film, whether or not you find its philosophy half-baked, is downright good cinema, doing things that couldn’t be done in any other medium”. And that could be said of many of Powell & Pressburger’s other films, because they used the medium as an entity in its own right and not just as filmed theatre or literature. It has to be said that Kneehigh’s attempts are to a great extent fairly successful. They stick more or less to the film’s structure and just reinterpret aspects that would be impossible to translate directly from the film.

“A matter of life and death” is set in 1945 and the plot at its simplest concerns Peter (David Niven in the film), a fighter-pilot, whose Lancaster bomber is attacked, forcing him to bail out without a parachute. Just before he jumps, he gains contact with June, a radio operator, and miraculously survives. He is washed up on shore, rescued and meets June by chance and is examined in hospital for brain damage. Of course, according to the celestial rules he should be dead, a fact that puts Heaven in a spin. In the film he is placed on trial to decide whether he should live or die, but in the play the trial is all taking place in his head. The conclusion is that life and death is randomly decided on the spin of a coin. In the film he lives, on stage he either lives or dies, depending on the nightly spin of that coin.

The design by Bill Mitchell is the dominating force, as it was in the original film, although here it uses the mundane rather than the exquisite Technicolor of the movie. The piece opens with beds being wheeled into a hospital ward, followed by nurses on bicycles. These then become the engines for the huge aeroplane as it fights to stay airborne, with two huge metal arches of steps joined together while the nurses lie on their backs pedalling furiously in an imitation of a flying machine. The metaphysics or life and death, time and space, and the impact of love on two people are deftly drawn in broad strokes. The steps later become the famous moving staircase on which Conductor 71 (the florid Marius Goring in the film) tries to lure Peter to Heaven. At the National it is the Icelandic actor Gisli Orn Gardarsson playing the part of the intermediary responsible for Peter’s fate, who has the ability to halt time while Peter sorts out his life or his death. Gardarsson has a real stage presence that binds the production together. Although it is very much an ensemble production, mention should also be made of Tristan Sturrock as Peter, Lyndsey Marshal as June, and Douglas Hodge as Peter’s friend Frank.

The music is provided by a live onstage band playing an assortment of music by Stu Barker, encompassing jazz, mariachi, blues, torch songs and salsa beats. At times it seems a little out of place as one longs for something weightier and more orchestral. At one point there are hand-bells, which director Emma Rice includes as a reminder of her grandfather and as a tribute to his somewhat unhappy life. One of the songs, however, in its demeanour and performance seems to have come direct from Monty Python in that it resembles a very jaunty version of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ which is offered as the play-out music at the end of the show.

Good in parts, and on the whole very entertaining, Kneehigh’s attempts at recreating a movie classic should be applauded, but it is no substitute for another look at the original film.

  • National Theatre
  • A Matter of Life and Death runs until 21 June
  • Box Office 020 7452 3000

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