Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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