Sweet Music – The Subtle Seductions of South Pacific and Shakespeare

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

The Merchant of Venice – Act V, Scene 1

Last night, we saw the much-praised Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. We’ve had the tickets for months and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a superlative production – there’s so much talent on display, not just in the obvious singing, dancing and acting departments but also in the imaginative staging, lighting and perfect period design. No amplification, no special effects wizardry, just old-fashioned, honest talent. And everybody left the theatre on a high, singing “those wonderful romantic songs.”

But the interesting thing is that, though it’s packed with romantic set-pieces and numbers, South Pacific is not a romantic show. Absolutely not. It begins with an expatriate, whose murky past includes murder, calculatingly eyeing up a woman half his age. In the next scene, we meet Bloody Mary, an enterprising native woman whose sidelines include trading in shrunken human heads, and a raucous chorus of US Navy troops who flood the stage with sex-starved testosterone. In this world, everything is currency – a theme personified by Bloody Mary herself and her American equivalent, the blue-collar Luther Billis, who ruthlessly exploits any economic opportunity and would like nothing more than to blag his way onto a neighbouring island, get an exotic native lay and plunder their culture for marketable souveniers.   We’re introduced to the nurses – there are only six of them, nowhere near enough to go around – and the message is clear – they’re the officers’ property.

This is not an idealised world. Quite the reverse. And this modern production brings that right out into the open, juxtaposing the glorious songs with an occasionally sordid reality to great effect. Good popular music is extremely potent, particularly when combined with a 25-piece orchestra at the top of their game and luscious tropical settings. If that’s all you want, you’ll go away satisfied. But there is more, and it’s there for anyone who wants to look for it. South Pacific still has important things to say, and painful things can be said enjoyably; it’s the dissonance and ambiguity that make it rich.

Most problematic of all is the subplot regarding the heroic Lieutenant Cable and his beautiful Polynesian partner Liat. Bloody Mary happens to be Liat’s mother, and as far as she’s concerned her daughter is just another commodity that can be offered to the troops. Remember that heart-stoppingly beautiful, romantic number, Younger than Springtime? Cable sings it straight after he’s had sex with her, a girl handed to him on a plate by her mother, probably in her early teens, clearly frightened of him and unable to have a conversation with him because of the language barrier. He’s absolutely sincere when he sings about her youth and joy invading his arms – just as Pinkerton was in Madam Butterfly. In the second act, sensing that she’s losing her best customer, Bloody Mary gets Liat to perform for him to the charming little tune, Happy Talk. Believe me, it’s no academic affectation deconstructing this kind of thing. Its subtext is up there, along with the corn, as high as an elephant’s eye.

At the interval, my husband turned to me and said, “It’s just like Shakespeare, isn’t it? Full of quotes.” I realised he was onto something. South Pacific has a lot in common with those edgy, unsettling comedies that Shakespeare wrote in mid-career. Particularly, I felt, with Much Ado About Nothing, a story that also features military men on the lookout for partners (or just sex) and sometimes behaving badly. Both shows have two contrasting romantic couples – one sparky and delightful to watch, but ultimately raising few issues other than the usual one of how long it will take them to get together, and another one that is far more problematic. We laugh along to Beatrice and Benedick, delighting in the sparring, but few modern audiences could feel entirely comfortable watching the cruelty of Claudio denouncing Hero as a whore on the flimsiest of evidence and humiliating her on their wedding day, or her apparently willing capitulation when he barely has the decency to apologise. It might have been entirely acceptable to contemporary audiences, but it’s a major issue for any modern production.

Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day - 1861 illustration by Marcus Stone

In a previous review of The Merchant of Venice, I wrote about Shakespeare’s audacity – the way he seemed to delight in surrounding his audience with the trappings of conventional romance, using every theatrical device available, only to pull the rug out from under their feet. In the final act of The Merchant, a glorious tableau of soaring verse celebrating moonlight and sweet harmony rapidly degenerates into a bitch-fest about a mislaid love token that wouldn’t look out of place on The Only Way is Essex. Shakespeare, it seems, is saying the same thing as Rogers and Hammerstein – you think you’re getting romance, and you are – but romance is an illusion, just like the theatre. The reality is sex as currency, and relationships as transactions. And shadows surround the happy couple centre-stage at the end. In the case of South Pacific, it’s the memory of Cable who doesn’t come back from the mission, and in The Merchant it’s the heartbroken Antonio and the devastated Shylock, who loses both his daughter and his ducets to a morally bankrupt society.

Every time a show is revived, whether it’s four hundred years old or sixty, artistic choices have to be made between accommodating the realities of what audiences found acceptable at the time of its composition, and what layers are inferred by the writers but present for future audiences to see. South Pacific is more than worthy of this treatment, and for those who look beyond the schmaltz there are many issues, some of them disturbingly relevant, to explore.

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