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.

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