South Pacific – Sadler’s Wells

South Pacific (by Johan Persson)

A year ago, theatre was tentatively recovering from long months of closure and the possibility of covid disrupted performances that could stop an entire run in its tracks. Under these conditions, Chichester Festival Theatre served up one of the shows of the year – a production that many of us could only enjoy as a pre-recorded digital stream. But the screen was no barrier to the consuming magic of Daniel Evans’s South Pacific, a contemporary and rather savvy reinterpretation of arguably the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of them all, a score in which almost every glorious song is known beyond its original story. Now, the production is touring the UK with many of the original cast members and its original leads, allowing those who only saw it remotely to finally enjoy it live.

Sadler’s Wells rarely stages or accepts musicals although Singin’ in the Rain has stopped here recently and the production values now demanded by Matthew Bourne’s company, Northern Ballet and, most recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are inherently theatrical and akin to big musical shows – Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Kenneth Tindell’s Casanova were a masterclass in storytelling using props, set and costume designed by Christopher Oram who frequently works on drama. And Sadler’s Wells has a vast stage, perfect for the ensemble dance element of shows like South Pacific which require plenty of room for spectacle in which the sweeping vistas of military life confront all kinds of civilians on a mystical Tonkinese island. Evans’s production, even in its touring form, requires a revolve, large set blocks that represent the naval base, Emile’s plantation and the mysterious Bali Ha’i as well as the tonal shifts demanded by acts of war and epic love stories for which Sadler’s Wells provides ample space.

Whether watching at home or in person, South Pacific is a complex proposition, not just in size and scale of its multiple islands setting at the end of the Second World War as American naval and marine forces take on their Japanese equivalents, but any new production must also navigate audience expectation based on the, rather jolly, 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brassi, as well as the weight of all those almost too famous songs. Music can take on a life of its own, divorced from the context of it original setting where it resides amongst a suite of related music telling a wider, often more complicated, narrative than a single song can convey. But the popularity of the songs in South Pacific, a favourite at musical theatre concerts, Proms and cabaret performances, mean that the jaunty melodiousness of Richard Rodger’s music can even overcome the weighter meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Seeing these songs out of context or via the lighter 50s Technicolor film, an audience, eager to be entertained, can come to the auditorium expecting to be carried away by the romance and the fun of South Pacific without fully reckoning with the darker undertones and alternative emphasis that has always existed in this music.

What makes Evans’s interpretation of South Pacific so magnificent and so powerful, is how skillfully the creative team draw those elements to the surface without losing a shred of the show’s bouncy and exotic charm. As was so abundantly clear on screen, this production openly grapples with concepts of occupation that the arrival of the US troops represents, it deals with the racism that runs through the show in the attitudes to and presentation of native characters while equally considering the, now queasier, prospect of coercion and powerplay in the interactions between white men with guns and very young women that have only ever represented the male gaze. In short, this South Pacific is remarkably honest about itself while still sending you home with a hopeful heart.

Musical theatre has a troubled relationship with presentations of war, the requirements of the form sanitising the experience of men in combat scenarios. The three jolly sailors arriving in New York for a good time in On the Town or in LA for Anchors Away are not fighters or killers jaded by months at sea but dancers and singers getting into innocent japes with the girls they meet. A similar Gene Kelly vehicle It’s Always Fair Weather features happy-go-lucky veterans as does White Christmas where they form a charming song and dance troupe after the war with no sign of PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Even the now controversial Miss Saigon is a Madame Butterfly-inspired tale of epic love that plays down the business and consequences of war for the combatant and those they encounter.

This production of South Pacific understands the wider impact of occupation better than any musical interpretations of modern times. And in what is initially a happy place of love and larks, the arrival of Lieutenant Cable signals a notable dramatic shift. An harbinger of the emotional doom to come, he casts a shadow over the proceedings, an unknowingly self-destructive figure whose arrival with orders to undertake a special mission behind enemy lines signals the beginning of the end for US forces in the region as well as creating negative ramifications for his own life and those he abandons – with huge ethical consequences for the local people used and then left with little to show for it.

This tension starts to creep into Evans’s South Pacific, barely perceptibly at first, but military need increasingly begins to displace the romanticism of this particular story. Even Cable’s first visit to the enchanting Bali Ha’i has a touch of melancholy beneath the surface despite the stunning design by Peter McKintosh working with Howard Harrison to create a rich and seductive lightscape in tones of purple, orange and blue illuminated by candlelight. Cable may be captivated by Liat – a moment this production ensures we know is fed entirely by his months of loneliness and the impossible distance of real life back home – but in singing Younger Than Springtime he almost knows already that this is a decision he will eventually pay heavily for, a desperation underpinning the way this song is presented that starts to address the problematic presentation of this relationship, the respective ages of the characters and the power imbalance within the show.

That from this point on Cable is seen to pay for his weakness is pointed, soon contracting a malarial infection from which he never recovers and, eventually, choosing duty over infatuation. Unable to say yes to Bloody Mary’s proposition, this is a consequence that feels like a self-inflicted punishment for the wrong he knows he has done to their family, one that perhaps leads him to a noble military sacrifice but a far cry from the traditional military musical male. The downbeat repositioning of Happy Talk becomes a symbol of this more nuanced examination of inappropriate involvement with the local women, one that leaves them with nothing but regrets and only the male plantation owners to fall back on.

But the show also feels this tonal creep in other areas, moving from external relationships to activities principally on the naval base or in its service. While the focus of the first half of the show is primarily on interactions with local civilians and the exoticism of the region, the second part forces military discipline back into the show as the plot moves to the consequences of occupation. It may start with a light-hearted variety show for the men but Evans creates a parting of the ways as the focus shifts to Cable and de Becque’s mission, filling the stage with military paraphernalia, a giant map of the region and, eventually, plans to evacuate the area. Clearly, the party is over and, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality the real reason for the occupation takes over. Once that is achieved, they depart without a second thought for what they have left in their wake, the pain on Bloody Mary’s face a cue for the audience to consider what right they had to be there at all.

Yet Evans may also, like Nellie, be A Cockeyed Optimist, because his production finds a deep and true love between its principal characters, one that contrasts so meaningfully with the terrible toll of Cable and Liat. Even on screen, the centrality of the Emile-Nellie love story was clear and this production makes better sense of it than any before. From the very first moments of South Pacific as it opens on the deck of Emile’s plantation, the complimentarities and connection between these two quite different people are clear, so the trials and tribulations that inevitably follow make their coming together all the sweeter.

It isn’t easy to pitch an epic love story in our more cynical times and while the rest of the production looks to challenge the cosy image of South Pacific, the purpose of this relationship reinforces the glorious sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for the couple. There is an innocence in their feeling for each other that is far purer, far more reliable than the terrible price of Cable’s semi-lust for Liat and for whom he is a romantic escape from a less suitable man. But Nellie and Emile have a more adult connection in a way, built on a greater openness about themselves that the events of the story reveal while able to overcome the prejudicial barriers that are thrown up between them. What they offer to each other in this interpretation is an honesty about what they want from one another and it gives the show a rich emotional heart that is very affecting.

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an extraordinary radiating chemistry that easily made it through a screen last year and fills the auditorium at Sadler’s Wells, giving depth and meaning to those sung declarations of love and pain that result from their actions. In the great acoustics of this space, Beck’s vocal is beautiful particularly in the heartfelt I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy but just as charming and full of musical joy in the big sequence pieces like Honey Bun and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, capturing exactly Nellie’s likability and spirit as well as the touching certainty of her feeling for Emile. The moral turpitude that Nellie experiences as Emile’s secrets are revealed is given an edge by Beck, an unreasonableness that adds a helpful shade to the simplicity of Nellie’s character, a recognition that she feels deeply and this makes her eventually deserving of him.

Ovenden is equally outstanding, his powerful voice surging through the room in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, two gloriously realised ballads that build to a heart-wrenching poignancy. Less remote than some interpretations, Ovenden’s Emile is a far warmer, more jovial character who in turn is a good father and a man decent enough to turn his complicated past into a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In a character whose essential purity and goodness shines through, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be half in love with this Emile by the end of the show and the essential stillness in Ovenden’s performance has a powerful charisma.

Also reprising their original roles, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary has real agency, a successful entrepreneur just as happy to do business with the US marines as plantation owners. Ultimately a mother trying to support her family and get the best deal for her daughter, Ampil’s Mary sets the tone with mournful but impactful versions of Happy Talk and Bali Ha’i. Rob Houchen is superb as the broken Lieutenant Cable, quickly dissolving and almost unable to bear either the absence of the girl he loves or the knowledge of his actions. Houchen’s performance of Younger Than Springtime is a treat while his rapid decline is movingly portrayed.

This is a smart and thoughtful interpretation of South Pacific that takes carefully considered approach to some of the problems in the scenario without fully absolving the characters for their behaviour and choices. Managing to balance the sparkle of the big set-pieces and the not so charming effects of military occupation with some serious emotional clout that will leave you wrung through at the end, this sets the standard against which future productions will be judged. With a UK tour running until November, Bali Ha’i is calling you, don’t resist.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August followed by a UK tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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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