War of the Worlds stage version on DVD, (Jeff Wayne, 2006)
Jeff Wayne wanted to take The War of the Worlds on the road years ago, but the untimely death
of Richard Burton and the limitations of the technology of the time prevented him from doing so
in a way that would satisfy him. Fast-forward to 2006, and finally the technology has advanced
enough that a little thing like death can be overcome. The result is a big budget stage production
that combines the original music and narration with cinematic visuals and physical effects.
I should start this review with a disclaimer. I have not actually seen the stage show live.
This is a review of the DVD of the stage show, so should be read with that in mind. The production
begins with something new, a prologue set on Mars, which sets up the reasons for the Martian invasion.
It?s not an entirely auspicious start, burdened as it us by some laboured dialogue and not entirely
convincing CGI. Nor does it spring any great surprises as to the Martian motives, who are seen
teetering on the brink of environmental collapse.
Of course what we are really waiting for is those first rousing notes of the familiar score and
in this respect the stage version certainly does not disappoint in the least. The music has never
seemed so vibrant, with a full string orchestra playing in tandem with the more familiar rock and
pop performers. It sounds great, and getting to see the musicians at work is a real treat. Their
enthusiasm for the material is palatable and where possible some of the original artistes have been
reformed as the aptly named Black Smoke band.
As a lavish sound production this is hard to beat, but a nagging problem is that as an ensemble,
it doesn?t really seem to quite know what it is. Is it a musical, a piece of theatre or a cinematic
presentation? There has been little attempt to adapt the original material to the stage; rather the
stage has had to adapt to the music, and this all leaves you with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling
throughout. Actors come and go at key moments and go through the motions, quite often literally,
as they mime the actions to the words. Sometimes this works superbly, notably in the scene between
Parson Nathaniel and his wife, sometimes not, particularly when the artilleryman starts measuring
out his underground lair with a giant sized compass that looks like it was last used as a prop in
Land of the Giants. It just likes they were really struggling to give him something to do other
than just stand still and belt out the words.
Added to the sense of uncertainty is the use of a huge screen behind the performers to project
images from the story. I suspect the DVD compounds this issue, as you keep catching interesting
glimpses of something happening on screen and wish you could see more of it. Oddly, the extra features
miss a trick here, since it would have been great to be able to watch the whole CGI presentation to
the soundtrack. Perhaps in hindsight, it might have been better to make the difficult decision to
completely rework the music into something more akin to a stage musical, with all new dialogue and
scenes to bridge the key musical tracks. I?m sure this must at least have been considered, but I
imagine Jeff Wayne has lived with this material for so long that any dilution of the purity of his
vision would have been a very difficult thing to endure.
No review of this production would be complete without mention of its most contentious element,
the giant head of Richard Burton. Rather than simply project a CGI representation of Burton on screen,
it was decided to sculpt a giant fibreglass head and overlay his features on it to create a 3D projection
that would be hung from the stage. It?s an interesting idea, but slightly creepy in execution as it
hangs over the stage like a great floating decapitated head. The Holy Grail of CGI is the aim of producing
an entirely computer generated person that can pass for real, and as recent efforts have proved, it?s
getting close to realisation, but still has some way to go. Done on such a scale as this, the limitations
are magnified 100 fold, with the result that this Burton looks horribly unreal at times, his waxy features
contorting and twitching in random fashion. The occasional flex of an eyebrow simply can?t bring him back
to life in a convincing way, and unless I missed it, I don?t think he ever blinks, which is very disconcerting.
The other big visual effect of the production is the giant Tripod that is lowered on to stage early in
the production. I should declare here that I have never really liked the design of the Jeff Wayne tripods.
They just didn?t strike me as particularly sinister, and though the stage machine is impressive in scale,
it doesn?t really add anything to the production, and is another example of the show being hobbled by the
need to work within the limitations of the music and so having to rely on bombastic set pieces. Going back
to the idea of re-imagining the material, I think it would have worked much better if the cast had being
given spoken dialogue, and the war machines represented by just their giant legs, crashing down on the stage
from above amongst the actors. This would have provided a great sense of scale and menace.
The extra features that come with the two-disc edition of the DVD constitute a very interesting and
surprisingly open insight into the trials and tribulations of producing something so huge and complex.
The highlight is the hour long behind the scenes documentary that tracks the last few weeks of pre-production.
There are triumphs, failures and some pretty brutal creative disagreements along the way, as well as wayward
actors and broken tripods. Other extra features include items on "animating a tripod", interviews with Jeff
Wayne and the cast, plus "rehearsing Thunderchild" and "Sculpting the Richard Burton head."
I know this review has been quite negative in tone, which is probably a bit unfair on a labour of love,
but I would repeat that this is a review of a DVD and so my comments should be tempered with that in mind.
The enthusiastic reception of the live audience makes it quite clear that to experience it in person would
be an entirely different thing, and massive kudus should go to the cast, crew and musicians, who are flawless
in their execution of this timeless material. There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, and Jeff Wayne is
clearly a man on a mission and was determined to give his audience an experience to remember. You can make
any number of arguments and criticisms as to the way he did it, but you can?t fault for a second his commitment
to the purity of the vision. Personally I think I prefer to put the record on, but for those who couldn?t make
the tour, or balked at the rather expensive tickets, this is probably a very worthwhile purchase.
Single disc DVD
Double disc DVD
Regular version CD
Collectors edition CD
See also in:
Film and TV
The War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne. The original musical version of The War of the Worlds is still an amazing realisation of the story.