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.

More articles by:

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

January 23, 2018
Amir Khafagy
Marching Into the Arms of the Democrats
January 22, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes
Jim Kavanagh
Behind the Money Curtain: A Left Take on Taxes, Spending and Modern Monetary Theory
Sheldon Richman
Trump Versus the World
Mark Schuller
One Year On, Reflecting and Refining Tactics to Take Our Country Back
Winslow Wheeler
Just What Earmark “Moratorium” are They Talking About?
W. T. Whitney
José Martí, Soul of the Cuban Revolution
Uri Avnery
May Your Home Be Destroyed          
Wim Laven
Year One Report Card: Donald Trump Failing
Jill Richardson
There Are No Shithole Countries
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
Are the Supremes About to Give Trump a Second Term?
Laura Finley
After #MeToo and #TimesUp
Howard Lisnoff
Impressions From the Women’s March
Andy Thayer
HuffPost: “We Really LOVED Your Contributions, Now FUCK OFF!”
Weekend Edition
January 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Dr. King’s Long Assassination
David Roediger
A House is Not a Hole: (Not) Caring about What Trump Says
George Burchett
How the CIA Tried to Bribe Wilfred Burchett
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Plan B for Syria: Occupation and Intimidation
Michael Hudson – Charles Goodhart
Could/Should Jubilee Debt Cancellations be Reintroduced Today?
Marshall Auerback – Franklin C. Spinney
Boss Tweet’s Generals Already Run the Show
Andrew Levine
Remember, Democrats are Awful Too
James Bovard
Why Ruby Ridge Still Matters
Wilfred Burchett
The Bug Offensive
Brian Cloughley
Now Trump Menaces Pakistan
Ron Jacobs
Whiteness and Working Folks
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Keeper of Crazy Beats: Charlie Haden and Music as a Force of Liberation
Robert Fantina
Palestine and Israeli Recognition
Jan Oberg
The New US Syria “Strategy”, a Recipe For Continued Disaster
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Return of the Repressed
Mel Gurtov
Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia
Robert Fisk
The Next Kurdish War Looms on the Horizon
Lawrence Davidson
Contextualizing Sexual Harassment
Jeff Berg
Approaching Day Zero
Karl Grossman
Disaster Island
Thomas S. Harrington
What Nerve! In Catalonia They are Once Again Trying to Swear in the Coalition that Won the Most Votes
Pepe Escobar
Rome: A Eulogy
Robert Hunziker
Will Aliens Save Humanity?
Jonah Raskin
“Can’t Put the Pot Genie Back in the Bottle”: An Interview with CAL NORML’s Dale Gieringer
Stepan Hobza
Beckett, Ionesco, and Trump
Joseph Natoli
The ‘Worlding’ of the Party-less
Julia Stein
The Myths of Housing Policy
George Ochenski
Zinke’s Purge at Interior
Christopher Brauchli
How Trump Killed the Asterisk
Rosemary Mason - Colin Todhunter
Corporate Monopolies Will Accelerate the Globalisation of Bad Food, Poor Health and Environmental Catastrophe
Michael J. Sainato
U.S Prisons Are Ending In-Person Visits, Cutting Down On Reading Books
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail