FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mike Bartlett’s Chariots of Fire

by CHARLES R. LARSON

If you enjoyed the 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire, you’re going to love the stage version, recently opened in London—obviously with an eye for the summer Olympics.  Remarkably, the new version (adapted by Mike Bartlett) stays close to the original film.  I say remarkably because I can already hear you asking how all those races be run on stage.  That’s the genius of Edward Hall’s direction, which uses two concentric turntables—plus a running ramp which forms a complete oval, raked slightly behind the stage but also extending into the auditorium behind the first three rows.  Shades of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, to be certain, with those roller-blade races, but Chariots of Fire not only has the spectacle but all the nuances and the profundity of the original film.

In case you’ve forgotten, Chariots of Fire is the dual story of two bigger-than-life Olympic heroes who set records at the 1924 Olympics, when Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) made history. Decades later, Liddell is still regarded as Scotland’s most revered athlete of all times.  And Abrahams—because of his subsequent career as a sports broadcaster and writer, according to program notes—was “the voice of the sport in Britain for many years.  When it came to sports administration, he was a prominent official with domestic and international athletics governing bodies until his death….”  But it might not have turned out that way.

Abrahams’ obstacle was being a Jew in a country where anti-Semitism had been entrenched for centuries (think of Shakespeare’s Shylock).  By contrast, Liddell’s piety almost prevented him from becoming a runner at the beginning of his career.  His family were missionaries in China bereft of any understanding of Eric’s drive to excel in athletics.  Both men were conflicted by their parents’ lack of interest in their sporting careers.  The conflict at the end of Chariots of Fire (when the two athletes will face off against one another, as well as against two superb American runners at the 1924 Olympics) is the discovery that the anticipated race will be held on a Sunday.  And Liddell will not compromise his religion; he will not run on Sunday.

The one earlier time the two men competed against each other, Liddell won though the opposite had been expected. Thus, there’s that on-going rivalry (as England’s finest) to contend with at the center of the drama.  The clever staging by Mike Barnett gives Abrahams the more developed character because of an on-going relationship with a beautiful D’Oyly Carte mezzo-soprano (including wonderful snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas), plus the on-going conflicts with a personal trainer at a time when such assistance was controversial. Liddell’s back story is his strong religiosity and his sister who pressures him to return with the family to China for their missionary work.  He’s much more straight-laced than Abrahams, who lives it up at Cambridge, once he’s proven to his betters that his skills as an athlete are what the university should be interested in rather than his ethnicity.

The staging—and the demands on the two leads—is frequently electrifying.  The actors not only must be able to act but also endure extreme physical stamina.  And, they must be able to sing.  Equally noteworthy is the incorporation of the film’s original music by Vangelis, as stirring as it was when the film version was released three decades ago.  (Vangelis won an Academy Award for his music.)

As the actors run, as the races are simulated, on the turntables but, more importantly, on the oval ramp, they achieve such speeds that they constantly hit the sides of the backstage rails preventing them from running into the spectators seated there. (The production is staged in the round.)  I had the good fortune to observe the first act from the backstage stalls and the second from the orchestra in front of the stage.  After the final race of the play, I was close enough to observe James McArdle (Abrahams) leaning against the proscenium, exhausted, waiting for his reentry in the final scene.  Jack Lowden (Liddell) was leaning against the other side of the arch also gasping for breath.  I was in awe of their physical talents—their singing voices and acting abilities—totally convinced that I had observed two super athletes at their finest.

In addition to the races themselves, much of the success of the stage version of Chariots of Fire is the fast-paced movement of dozens of brief scenes, intermixing Abrahams’ and Liddell’s running achievements with their personal lives.  There is only one slow moment in the play—just before the final race.  The ensemble is composed of more than two dozen actors, including the Cambridge president of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, the two star-studded American athletes (Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock), who offer the major competition for the 100 yard race at the 1924 Olympics, plus three talented women from the D’Oyly Carte, with any number of brief dance scenes and relevant songs.

One final caveat.  The staged version of Chariots of Fire is playing at the Gielgud Theatre in London, obviously timed to be concurrent with the summer Olympics.  In the original film version, John Gielgud played one of Abrahams’ college masters at Cambridge.  I couldn’t help thinking that if Gielgud were in the audience, watching Chariots of Fire, he’d be cheering like everyone else at the conclusion of the play.  You leave the theatre feeling good, realizing that if integrity and personal discipline can still inspire us, well, then, not everything in the world has fallen apart.

Gielgud Theatre, London.  Chariots of Fire.

Stage Adaptation by Mike Bartlett

Direction: Edward Hall

Music: Vangelis

Design: Miriam Buether

Costumes: Michael Howells

Choreography: Scott Ambler

Additional Music: Jason Carr

Lighting: Rick Fisher

Sound: Paul Groothuis

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:
May 25, 2016
Eric Draitser
Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Does Venezuela’s Crisis Prove Socialism Doesn’t Work?
Dan Arel
The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party
Marc Estrin
Cocky-Doody Politics and World Affairs
Sam Husseini
Layers of Islamophobia: Do Liberals Care That Hillary Returned “Muslim Money”?
Susan Babbitt
Invisible in Life, Invisible in Death: How Information Becomes Useless
Mel Gurtov
Hillary’s Cowgirl Diplomacy?
Kathy Kelly
Hammering for Peace
Dick Reavis
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
Wahid Azal
Behind the Politics of a Current Brouhaha in Iran: an Ex-President Ayatollah’s Daughter and the Baha’is
Jesse Jackson
Obama Must Recommit to Eliminating Nuclear Arms
Colin Todhunter
From the Green Revolution to GMOs: Living in the Shadow of Global Agribusiness
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum
Dave Lindorff
72-Year-Old Fringe Left Candidate Wins Presidency in Austrian Run-Off Election
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail