Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for London 2012 was crammed full of meaning and symbolism, concept stacked on concept in a constantly shifting look at British culture that began where the Thames begins and finished with the lighting of the Olympic torch by athletes who have yet to reach their full potential. It was, even in the light of the countless, all valid, complaints about LOCOG and G4S’ choices, a monumental success. It was also startlingly politically charged ceremony, the salute to the NHS equal parts well timed, overdue and almost certain to have no appreciable effect.
One moment in particular stood out as both the hub of multiple levels of symbolism and arguably the cleverest, most self-deprecating part of the ceremony. Especially as, superficially, this sequence was the height of British triumphalism
Let’s unpack the symbolism here; first off, there’s the hill, which is designed to be a stylized Glastonbury Tor but also very deliberately evokes not only the rural idyll that inspired Tolkien to create The Shire but the North of the country. This idea, of evoking multiple geographic location through one is itself built on by the fact that these locations are both real and fictional. The hill becomes a notion state rather than a nation state, a place that represents all places. This was then built on once more by the fact that the flag of every competing nation were placed on the hill. The message is surprisingly nuanced;l the world is assembled here to embrace an ideal, something fictional in concept and real in execution; the best of human sporting endeavor, the Questing Beast in running shoes.
The hill’s symbolism is also heavily tied to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the British engineer who was responsible for the first transatlantic propeller-driven steamship, assisted in the creation of the first tunnel under a navigable river and was responsible for the creation of the Great Western Railway. Brunel was, and still is, a towering figure of British industry, a man responsible for decisions and innovations that still shape the world today. He’s a captain of industry, an embodiment of the industrious, can do spirit. But also an embodiment of the industrial revolution, a period which was directly responsible for massive breakthroughs and improvement in every aspect of life as well as drastic decreases in the quality of living for vast amounts of people. Brunel is a man with blood on his hands as well as grease and that’s the first clever, subversive idea Boyle puts forward. Brunel’s arrival precipitate the second; as extras scour the inside of the arena, turning it from idyllic countryside into a forge where one of the Olympic rings is constructed amid smoke stacks, grime and industry that’s red in tooth and claw. The world is being improved, whether the world likes it or not. Boyle’s stage direction for this, notably, was ‘You are building hell’, which clearly acknowledges the third clever, subversive thing he does; introduces the idea that Great Britain is a complex, troubled place, where good and bad often mean the same thing.
This third point is driven home by the final level of symbolism. Sir Kenneth Branagh, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors and directors of the last forty years, plays Brunel and the symbolism is added to once again; the great play of civilization becomes the great play of history. Brunel is encoded into the country’s history in the same way as Shakespeare and his characters are. That in turn ties into the ritualistic elements of the ceremony. Rapper and 21st century renaissance man Akira the Don described the ceremony as a ‘mega ritual’ and he’s absolutely right, with Branagh’s role as arguably the central point. He’s driven on set in a carriage, dressed as the greatest engineer in British history, strides onto the hill that represents multiple places, real and fictional and recites this speech, from The Tempest;
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
At first, it makes perfect sense to quote The Tempest. After all, Prospero is the best authorial stand in Shakespeare ever wrote, to the point where the play could, arguably, be about how difficult it is to write a play like The Tempest. It’s a story not just about creation, but about turmoil, and anyone who has a missile battery on their roof, or who worked for nothing, or had to go to work a different route in the last few months has experienced that first hand. I was in London in December and Leicester Square was a building site, even then. The city centre has been turned upside down, and the use of a speech from The Tempest, and the invocation of Prospero that comes with it, plays like a tacit apology for the inconvenience. Branagh is playing Brunel, quoting Shakespeare and representing every authority figure in the city and country.
Except this speech isn’t Prospero’s. It’s Caliban’s.
That’s the genius of this entire sequence; that Boyle not only uses one of the most difficult, complex plays Shakespeare ever wrote but uses the speech it’s most bestial, tragic character gives about the place he both loves and hates, and turns it into the center piece of a national celebration. This isn’t subverting or misunderstanding the text ether, it’s the most British approach you could imagine to the most international sporting mega ritual on the planet. It’s self deprecating, modest, even in the middle of the insane price tag, the vast scale and the bubbling resentment that, like so much in the country, it will remain focussed on London and the south. Boyle’s ceremony, and British history, embodied in Brunel and Branagh acknowledge all this, turn to an assembled world and say:
“Hello, this is Great Britain, we’re difficult and complex and we get things wrong. We’re every colour, every creed, every nationality and sometimes we all hurt. But tonight, the clouds open and show riches. Tonight, we shine. Come and play, we’ve put the kettle on.’