Here are two stories:
Boy meets girl. Boy is fated to die, but a mistake is made, and he lives. Boy and girl fall in love. The next world sends a conductor to collect boy’s soul: boy appeals the decision. A trial is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. Boy and girl demonstrate their love for one another. Boy wins his appeal — love is greater than law. Boy and girl live happily ever after.
Alternatively: boy meets girl. Boy miraculously survives a leap from a burning plane without a parachute. Boy and girl fall in love, but boy has suffered serious brain damage. An operation is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. The operation is a success — boy’s belief in love gives him the strength to fight through. Boy and girl live happily ever after.
The original version of A Matter of Life and Death — the wonderful 1946 film written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven as boy (Squadron Leader Peter Carter) and Kim Hunter as girl (American radio operator June) — could have been either story, and was in fact both. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes it as a “rationalised fantasy”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and indeed an opening title stakes a claim for reality: “this is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind … of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.” But the screenplay never confirms this statement, and in fact puts some effort into maintaining ambiguity as to what is real and what is not. There are multiple scenes set in the “other world” (to all intents and purposes, heaven) which Peter is not in, and which he displays no knowledge of, and which therefore suggest that the other world exists independently of his mind. And in one of the scenes where the Conductor visits Peter, freezing time for everyone else while they talk, he knocks over a stack of books, then puts them back in place while Peter is out of the room. After the visit, Peter expects the books to be on the floor: that they are not acts as confirmation to June, and to Frank Reeves, the doctor in charge of Peter’s case, that Peter is hallucinating, but we cannot take the same certainty.
The new stage adaptation at the National Theatre (adaptation by Tom Morris and Emma Rice, directed by Emma Rice) keeps the same basic structure, but there are many changes; the fact that it provides an answer about the nature of the other world is just one difference. Although there are gestures in the direction of ambiguity (as in the film, for instance, the judge at Peter’s trial and the surgeon operating on him are played by the same actor), the stage version of A Matter of Life and Death is unambiguously a fantasy. In the equivalent visit to the one I described above, for instance, the Conductor knocks over no books, but at the end of the scene Peter sees the spirit of a man who recently died at the local hospital, without having been told of the death. June and Frank note, and briefly discuss, the impossibility. Even more telling is the fact that, while Reeve dies in a motorcycle crash and serves as Peter’s advocate in the celestial courtroom showdown in both versions, only in the film is Peter told of the accident: in the stage version, Reeve just turns up in heaven.
The reason for the change takes a while to come clear. In the meantime, the production is largely engaging: the leads, Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal, give solid performances (and Sturrock arguably has an advantage over Niven in that he looks the right age), and have a slightly more modern relationship to work with. Peter and June’s first date is notably less chaste than its film equivalent, and she accepts rather than declines a drink; when asked how the chess game they’re playing is going, June says “Peter’s very good”, and Peter adds, “but June’s winning”, whereas in the film it’s the other way around; and towards the end of the story, June demonstrates the strength of her love for Peter by volunteering to take his place in death (a life for a life) off her own bat, rather than responding to a suggestion by Reeves. While the film is and remains deeply moving, the relationship in the play seems more immediate, more passionate. Other apects are less convincing. As the Conductor, Gisli Orn Gardarsson can’t match the peerless delivery of Marius Gorling; plus, in this version the Conductor is a Norwegian magician rather than a French aristocrat, and some of the lines (“your British weather!”) sound awkward. He comes across as a broad-brush clown. There’s an occasional lack of nuance elsewhere, too — when discussing faith, for instance, in the film June says she doesn’t really know, she hasn’t thought about it, which sets up a wonderful line from Reeves: “I don’t know, I’ve thought about it too much.” In the play, the positions of the three cast members are much clearer-cut (Peter believes, June is atheist, Reeves is agnostic), and the line is gone. And there are a few changes that are baffling in their triviality. In the film, Peter smells fried onions when the Conductor visits (further evidence, for Reeve, that the visits are hallucinations); in the play, he smells burnt toast.
Rice keeps the stage busy — just occasionally, as in the opening descriptions of the awesome immensity of the universe, perhaps a little too busy — and is occasionally inspired. Reeves, for instance, has a camera obscura which he uses to survey the village where he lives (“a village doctor must know everything; you’d be surprised how many diagnoses I’ve made from up here”). In the play, this shows the landscape around the National Theatre — the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge — complete with incongruous country village locals going about their business. Later, a game of table-tennis escalates, thanks to lifts from various members of the cast, into a virtuoso bullet-time (ping-pong-time?) extravaganza — less absurdist than this, but along the same lines. The musical scene-changes are unexpected, and sometimes feel like padding (the play is a good twenty minutes longer than the film), but also add emotional weight to a number of minor characters, such as the aforementioned dead guy seen by Peter, who gets his own solo. Music is also used to mark the transition between this world and the other: an adequate substitute for, if hardly as striking as, the film’s shift from technicolour to black and white.
The heart of the play, as with the film, is in the courtroom, yet it’s here that the changes are most radical. Part of the original impetus for A Matter of Life and Death was paranoia about potential cracks in the Anglo-American alliance: so June is American, and the prosecutor in Peter’s case is the rabidly anti-British Abraham Farlan, the first man to be killed by a British bullet in the American War of Independence. Consequently, the first part of the appeal, in which Farlan attempts to invalidate Peter’s case purely on grounds of nationality, comes across to a modern viewer — or at least to me — as an unnecessarily lengthy digression, perhaps the one duff moment in the film. Eventually, the real issue is raised, the court descends to Earth, Peter and June (summoned by the Conductor while sleeping) prove their love for one another, and Peter is granted his life. (Or, if you prefer, the surgery is a success.) In the play, by contrast, June is British and Farlan is nowhere to be seen. In his place there are two prosecutors: Peter’s father, who died in the first world war, and William Shakespeare.
The effect of this, if you’re charitable, is to considerably broaden the scope of the debate: it is no longer enough to simply establish that Peter and June love each other, it has to be established that they deserve each other. The film, you could say, was about love among the Allies; in the play, there’s a place in heaven for soldiers on all sides of the war (and of past wars), and it becomes a story about the costs of being a soldier. Peter’s father argues that death is what gives Peter’s life as a soldier meaning, that it will be inspirational, that to die is (in effect) to continue his camaraderie with the men he fought alongside. The most powerful moment in the entire production comes when the prosecution calls to the stand a woman killed in the bombing of Coventry. Why, she asks simply, should the rules be broken for Peter? No answer is offered, because none can be. On the other hand, if you’re less charitable, the change in focus leads to a muddle. There isn’t the clear back-and-forth that there is in the film; instead there are a series of more-or-less effective separate arguments (Shakespeare’s are among the less effective, if you were wondering; in fact, his impact on the trial is strangely cursory). The coup-de-grace comes when an unnamed man steps forward and insists that any judgement must take into account the inherent unfairness of war. They decide to toss a coin to decide Peter’s fate, and he dies, turning the ending from an affirmation of the power of love into a bitter reminder that fate is arbitrary and cruel. It’s an ending that forces the viewer to confront the assumptions they have brought to the story — particularly if said viewer has seen the film; an original play that told the same story would probably not be so discomforting.
The work that came to mind immediately after watching the play was Mary Doria Russell’s novel A Thread of Grace — another World War II story, about which Russell has said that she really did toss a coin to decide which of her characters lived and who died. Rice and Morris, it turns out, have taken the concept a step further, in a way that can only be achieved with a stage production: the outcome changes every night. (And, I was told, it’s not always a coin toss; apparently, the night before we saw the play they asked the audience, in their role as the watching host of heaven, to decide, and they chose to let Peter live.) It’s a compelling choice, and I think explains why the play is so much more clearly framed as a fantasy than the film: it has to be, to give the voices of the dead their due moral force, to prevent them from being dismissed as belated pangs of Peter’s conscience, or complications on the operating table. Almost paradoxically, the change reduces the importance of Peter’s operation — the feeling that his fate lies on the operating table is far weaker in the play — yet makes the story more real. But at the same time, it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost. A friend described the film as “innocent without being naive”, which I think is right: it manages to do an almost miraculous thing, dramatise the life-saving potential of love without feeling as though it’s cheating. Rice and Morris’ play is, if you like, more honest about the nature of life and death, and worth seeing for that; but the innocence is gone.