Tuesday 12 November 2019

Jim White: It was all colourful and noisy but not po-faced

Fireworks during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: PA
Fireworks during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: PA

Jim White

THE first voice we heard was a familiar one. Beaming out of the Olympic stadium loudspeakers came the oddly ethereal, American accented tones of Britain's greatest living scientist. Professor Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist, author of 'A Brief History of Time' and occasional guest star on the Simpsons, was to be our guide for the Paralympic opening ceremony, what he promised would be an evening of exploration.

"Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world," he said. "Why it is as it is and why it exists at all."

And thus -- with a choreographed Big Bang almost loud enough to disturb the peace on the surface of the Moon -- he kicked off the brightest, busiest lecture he can ever have conducted.

Opening ceremonies of the Paralympics have, in the past, been earnest, insipid affairs. Jokes were not in abundance.

Hastily constructed after-thoughts to the main Olympian event, they were forgotten soon after they had finished. Or, in the case of Atlanta, while they were still in performance.

Not last night. At Britain's fine new Olympic Stadium, a capacity crowd was treated to three hours of noisy, colourful, bolshy brouhaha.

Plus umbrellas. Umbrellas used as boats, umbrellas used as flying machines, umbrellas used as dancing companions. On a cool, drizzly night when the poncho was an audience member's best friend, the sight of the street dance troupe Flawless cavorting to Rihanna's 'Umbrella' as an opening number raised a hearty collective grin.

Indeed, no one could accuse the London Paralympic Opening Ceremony of being po-faced. At times chaotic, perhaps; a little jumbled in its urgent rush to communicate its ideas, maybe.

But not po-faced. Not with a ballet of 62 golden wheelchairs flying across the stadium. Not with a circle of disabled acrobats standing atop 10-foot high bendy poles, strumming their prosthetic legs along to Ian Dury's 'Spasticus Artisticus' as if they were guitars.

Not with Joe Townsend, a former Royal Marine Commando who lost both his legs in action in Afghanistan, who was expected to bring the Paralympic torch into the stadium down a zip wire that stretched right from the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower.

How Lord Mayor Boris Johnson must have looked on at his smooth, easy progress with glowing admiration. When it comes to zip wires, those without legs, it seems, have far less problem than the able-bodied.

This was a very different piece of theatre to the Olympic Opening Ceremony. That night Danny Boyle's brief had been to reintroduce Britain and its capital to the world. How he achieved that, presenting his homeland as a modern, friendly and above all humorous place. When the head of state agrees to join in the fun, all suggestions of stiff formality are bundled out of the helicopter.

For Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, the artistic directors, things were far less specific in their location. This did not have the same aim of telling us about the country about to host the event. Thanks to Boyle, the world already knew that.

Their reach was wider, the aim to celebrate the human spirit, the possibilities that lie within us all.

This is what the ceremony was trying to do: point out that the limits of endeavour are merely territory as yet unexplored. To do so we were presented with music, dance and words. Although at times not necessarily in that order.

"Our backgrounds are both in the theatre," said Ms Sealey, who has been the artistic director of Graeae, the country's leading disabled theatre company, since 1997. "We wanted to tell a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end."

The story began, appropriately enough, with Hawking, our narrator for the evening and unquestionably the country's most distinguished disabled person. He introduced Nicola Miles-Wadden, who was to play a wheelchair-bound Miranda, the heroine of Shakespeare's 'Tempest'.

Yes, the 'Tempest': for the third time in this series of grand ceremonials this summer, Shakespeare's final play was to be central. The cynic might suggest the tale of Prospero's magic island is the only one of the Bard's works known to the coordinators of grand pageants. But Ms Sealey pointed to another reason.

"We arrived at the 'Tempest' by coincidence," she said. "But the fact three of the ceremonies have noted it suggests it must be right."

Indeed, after Caliban's speech about an isle full of glorious noise had featured in the Olympic opening and closing extravaganzas, there was something beautifully apt about Miranda's words in this context.

"O wonder! How many goodly creatures there are here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in't!"

Over the next 10 days we will be introduced to all sorts of brave new sports, peopled by fine specimens of mankind. And those specimens were soon brought out here.

Athletes from 160 countries filed in, accompanied by standard bearers wearing outfits designed by graffiti artists and soundtracked by a score from three local London DJs. Sebastian Coe, chairman of Locog, best articulated the evening's purpose.

"Sport is about what you can do, what you can achieve, the limits you can reach, the barriers you can break," he said.

"Sport shows what is possible. Sport refuses to take no for an answer. And everything sport stands for we are going to see right here, right now.

''Everything sports stands for we are going to experience with these Paralympic Games."

Irish Independent

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