DVD Review: South Pacific (2001)

“You can’t fix an egg when it ain’t quite good”

It’s funny where the gaps are for someone who was brought up on many a musical – I was obsessed with the film version of The Pirates of Penzance and so was nearly word-perfect on it from a small age, yet I never once saw or listened to South Pacific. Indeed, the first and only time I’ve seen it was from the gods at the Barbican back in 2011, an experience that did not leave me rushing to explore the show further. So it was with a little interest that I put on this 2001 TV film version, directed by Richard Pearce and executively produced by, among others, Glenn Close, who also took on the role of Nellie Forbush. 

And as I have so little connection to the musical, it’s been hugely fascinating to read just how up in arms some people got about the choices made in this version of South Pacific, showing how easy it is to swept up in expectation and emotion when talking about shows that you love and particularly, the way that they ‘should’ be done. So some were up in arms about Close being too old to play Nellie, others concerned about Rade Šerbedžija not being an operatic singer for Emile, songs being cut and rearranged sent many into apoplectic fits, and the rejigging of some of the supporting characters was the final straw for yet more.

But for someone to whom little of this matters (and there’s a lot more to be said about the ridiculousness of absolutism in storytelling, especially musical theatre!), I have to say I rather liked it, particularly Close’s interpretation of Nellie. Clearly it takes some getting used to if you’re expecting a 20-year-old in the part, but making her an older woman adds an aching gravitas and real pathos to the role, not to mention a real warmth. Her “cock-eyed optimism” feels closer to a last role of the dice, the joyous outpouring of ‘…Wonderful Guy’ is more powerful for the unexpectedness of Nellie’s feeling, her final decision more believable for someone who has already lived so much life.

And as for musical changes like removing ‘Happy Talk’, ignoring the problematic attitudes towards race in this or any other show is a far greater crime in my book. Yes, it is a product of its time but they shouldn’t be kept in aspic and if a decision like this makes a couple of people say, hey, maybe this isn’t ok, then it has been worth it (See Thoroughly Modern Millie for more of such thinking). Harry Connick Jnr and Natalie Mendoza make an appealing pair as Lt Cable and Liat and the racial tensions of the whole piece are pleasingly front and centre and the Australian and Pacific location work looks mightily impressive.

So there you have it. It’s absolutely fine not to like something, and to be disappointed that it doesn’t match up to what you thought it would be. But to do that is ignore what is actually being put in front of you and taking it on its own merits. It’s a difficult thing to do and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself on occasion but there’s a time to be open-minded about these things and the theatre (and by extension televised versions of theatrical shows) is where the imagination can run wild and accepted notions be challenged – Mercutio can be older, Hermione can be black, Henry V can be a woman, thinking differently is good and maybe, just maybe, that egg isn’t beyond all hope.

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