When I first heard that King Kong was being turned into a stage production, I was intrigued but not hopeful. It seemed much too big a task to fold that story down into the confines of even a large theatre, and I strongly suspected the efforts to reproduce a believable version of Willis O’Brien’s iconic ape would fall short.
I was even more surprised to discover that the production would be a musical. Surely, I thought, there will be enough trouble translating that superbly weird film, and how, especially to the modern eye, it has such distinctive racist subtext. (The depiction of the inhabitants of Skull Island in both the 1976 and 2005 remakes never quite escaped that uncomfortable depiction.)
So, I felt that King Kong was started with numerous challenges.
The very good news is that the stage production meets most of these issues head on and succeeds spectacularly well. The stage of the Regent Theatre is brilliantly converted to the streets of New York, the deck of a ship, a menacing jungle and the top of a skyscraper with flair each time. That giant story fits on the stage and doesn’t feel small. You have characters climbing vines, falling from towers, battling giant apes and generally filling the stage to bursting with dynamism.
The sound and lighting effects are excellent, especially where we first meet Kong. There are glimpses of eyes and massive teeth in the darkness, the rumbling roar of the creature, the deep, echoing crash of his mighty fists in the forest. Anne Darrow, suspended in vines, can only scream and twist as the beast arrives, examines her, takes her in his massive paw and disappears into the dense foliage. It’s a superb and genuinely spooky scene.
The entire show was always going to rise or fall on the depiction of the central character, and it has to be said that the puppetry is first class. Kong has a huge number of puppeteers and, as War Horse has already demonstrated, they do not have to be hidden in order to make us believe in the existence of the creature they animate. Kong’s face is enormously expressive, as are his physical movements. The occasional action (usually when he is leaping up buildings) isn’t very convincing, but for the most part, you absolutely believe in King Kong, from his first creepy appearance behind the trapped Ann Darrow, to the very effective scene of him running through the jungle at night and his forlorn figure when trapped in chains in the New York theatre.
The costume design is likewise excellent. Many of the costumes are done in varieties of grey-to-black, echoing the black and white film origins of the story, with occasional bursts of primary colour (red, green, blue and occasionally a shocking pink) to spice up the stage. The set design is also fascinating, and there’s no doubting the technical expertise of individual sets and scenes. But these two areas, as technically excellent as they are, are where King Kong begins to fall down.
The sets vary wildly to the point where many of them don’t seem to belong in the same play. The lighting is often effective, but it also has a weirdly Tron-like feeling, or at least some 1980s pop video, at odds with the period costume elsewhere.
It feels like the designers of both sets and costumes wanted to pay homage to pulp film of the first half of the 20th century, so we have 1930s style suits and dresses, but also a startling appearance of 1950s style space suits; there is a batty woman in tattered Victorian garb (looking a bit like a vintage Cyndi Lauper in Kabuki make-up) prophesying doom, and the natives of Skull Island in their silver lame body suits (which at least dispenses with the more racist ways these people are often portrayed) looking to me like an interpretive dance act from the International Festival ended up at the wrong theatre. There are little fur leotards, fascist uniforms, harem outfits and burlesque-style black vinyl corsets.
None of this would matter, if it felt cohesive. Baz Luhrman, for example, has a knack of taking disparate elements and somehow ‘painting them Baz’ so there’s a sense of continuity, that everything belongs. In this production I just felt a bit pulled to and fro, going from disconnect to disconnect, and it’s such a shame, because artistry has gone into what we see onstage. It’s just that the individual parts all feel like they belong to completely different shows.
In particular, I found myself terribly confused by the presence of the police dressed as fascists, and what that meant in relation to the main villain being a very camp Jewish filmmaker. It’s entirely likely that there was not meant to be a link, but those costumes and character choices have social and historical implications, not simply neat design effects, and it jarred.
Costume and set design aside, then, the cast do a great job – but again, with certain challenges diminishing the whole. Everyone on that stage is a terrific singer, from Queenie Van Der Zandt as Cassandra (the Kabuki-Lauper) to Esther Hannaford as Ann Darrow.
It’s important here to note that while people refer to King Kong as a musical, its own posters refer to it as a ‘music theatre event’. That may seem to be mincing with words, but I think it does better describe how the music is used on stage. It’s not a musical in the traditional manner. Actually, like the trouble with the set and costume design, the music is something of a mish-mash. There are ballads, and the sweet lullaby that Ann sings to Kong; songs that sound pure 1980s, but versions of songs from the 1930s. Then there’s the appearance of the sort of 90s hip-hop piece, and the stompy, angry version of ‘Come On, Get Happy’ as Kong is wreaking havoc on New York. I really liked that one as a song, as it happens, but once more, the styles jarred.
The final problem for me is really the script itself. It has dealt with some problematic issues of the original story by making the whole story breathtakingly sexist. Certain elements are emphasised – the fact that when Ann first appears she is set upon and nearly molested by a bunch of thugs; that when the film producer, Carl Denham (Adam Lyon) ‘rescues’ her he spends a bit of time sniffing her. This concept of the animalistic man is highlighted when first a pet monkey also sniffs at her, for quite some time (and apparently focusing on her crotch) until finally King Kong himself takes a good long whiff.
Ann twice shows some fabulous gumption – once when she roars back at Kong, and a second time when she stands up to her love interest for a moment, but essentially the character remains at the whim of the men who assault/abuse/use/command her. It says something that Kong is the one to show her the most respect. The whole thing didn’t have to be quite so cringingly about a woman who has no say in her own life, except that so many elements of that are emphasised, with the sniffing, with the literally being dragged around by men and apes, with her love song to the creature himself. Frankly, Ann Darrow is set up as a woman doomed to end up in abusive relationships.
So. It’s a difficult thing, this show. It is certainly full of spectacle and brilliantly executed design, but sadly it lacks a cohesive feel and the storyline fails to adapt to a modern audience by having a heroine who can seize control over her own fate. I found myself thinking of that line of Samuel Johnson’s about the Giant’s Causeway, that it is ‘worth seeing, yes, but not worth going to see’. King Kong is sadly less than the sum of its parts.
Nevertheless, if you do get an opportunity to see it, it’s definitely worth it for the ape.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.