My 6-year-old daughter is still sitting enrapt on the couch as 204 of the world’s nations finish parading into the Olympic Stadium on London’s East End following Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony. The massive live event involved brilliant use of film throughout, which is only appropriate given that Boyle, a British native, is the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire. The ceremony featured appearances by several British film stars, including a voice over by Ewan McGregor, a Shakespeare-reciting Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Craig as James Bond.
The spectacle opened with the kind of high-speed cinematic sequence Boyle is known for, and it had me a bit queasy as it followed the curves of the River Thames into the City of London. Once we entered the stadium, the scene shifted to live actors tossing apples to each other and dancing around maypoles on a lush, green pastoral background, replete with a giant tree which will shade the flags of each Olympic delegation. Kenneth Branagh was the first to speak in a show with very few spoken words, reciting a monologue from The Tempest. “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” A perfect description of a show Boyle promised would be “loud and thumpy.”
As far as grand scale theatre goes, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a greater work than Boyle’s opening ceremony. The transition from an agrarian United Kingdom to a London in the throes of the Industrial Revolution was stunning and seamless, and watching the Olympic rings be forged out of molten iron and then rise to rain fire from the sky was thrilling. If the British know how to do one thing well, it’s theatre, but Boyle’s high-concept show proved that they rule at comedy and music as well. Even Queen Elizabeth showed her good humour by parachuting into the stadium with James Bond just in time to watch an “in-your-face United States” celebration of the National Health Service, a mind-blowing giant puppet show narrated by J.K. Rowling topped off by the descent of multiple flying Mary Poppinses.
In what was perhaps the highlight of the night, Rowan Atkinson showed his comedic chops during a cameo appearance as a pianist playing the Chariots of Fire theme with the London Symphony Orchestra. I’ve embedded a video of that segment below, not only because it was hilarious, but because it showcases the way Boyle perfectly incorporated live performance and film. Boyle’s piece ended with a rocking tribute to youth culture, social media and the Internet’s British inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who appeared live to share the message, “This is for everyone,” which was displayed across the stadium on its LED seats. Afterward, soccer superstar and Eastender David Beckham looked as handsome as always driving a speedboat carrying the Olympic torch to its final destination.
I’m off to watch Sir Paul McCartney and what are sure to be some amazing fireworks! Now enjoy Mr. Bean at his finest: