Saturday, November 22, 2008


I had the extreme good fortune of seeing each of the "Three Knights" perform onstage. The Knights being Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, three of the English language's greatest actors.

To many (including the first two on the list) Richardson was considered the best of them all. But I never saw any of the performances that made and established his reputation. Instead I saw him in a play called "Inner Voices" in 1983 which was the final play he did before his death.

That play included a scene that you knew had either been specifically written with Richardson in mind or chosen for presentation by the National Theatre as a token of respect.

Alone on a massive set, Richardson completed a monologue as the stage ignited in a spectacular indoor fireworks display, sparks showering the elderly actor as rockets burst and exploded all around. I have no idea how the feat was accomplished let alone how it was even allowed to happen in an era when Actors Equity Union rules dictated that signs be posted on theatre entrances which warned things like "A gun will be discharged onstage during Act III".

It was both a safety measure as well as the ultimate SPOILER!

Ralph Richardson was a legendary lover of fireworks. He'd almost burned down the house belonging to Olivier and Vivien Leigh when he set off an impromptu display in their garden to impress her. And on more than one occasion, local fire brigades were called to various garden parties when one of Richardson's pyro-technical displays had gotten out of control.

When the National Theatre opened its permanent home on the banks of the Thames, it began a tradition of signaling opening nights by setting off "Ralph's Rocket", a flaming streamer that was shot into the sky -- usually after Ralph himself lit the fuse.

Once asked what his attraction to Fireworks was, he shrugged and said, "I just love them. They're so -- unnecessary!"

Yet as he stood on stage in that last performance, face turned to the colors exploding mere feet away, you could sense his utter joy at being a part of such meaningless beauty.

Fireworks always get me too. Toronto used to have this spectacular summer festival down on the lake where various countries would come to set off fireworks displays to music. Literally millions of people attended. Hundreds of sailboats anchored near the barges that held the charges and traffic along the shoreline expressway froze for the performances.

The best I've ever seen were the closing of the Sydney Olympics when the Parramatta River became a sea of flame burning all the way to the Sydney Harbour Bridge evaporating it in a massive white starburst and New Year's Eve in Surfer's Paradise with the Coral Sea lit up by fountains of fire that ranged from one coastal horizon to the other.

But the biggest Fireworks display in history was apparently held last week in Dubai to celebrate the opening of the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah. The half hour display cost $40 Million and was visible to the Astronauts aboard the Space Station.

Now I know some people would consider all that fairly excessive. But when you're opening a hotel that charges $45,000 per night for its penthouse suite, I figure you gotta go big or go home. And since the penthouse is now booked solid through New Year's (despite this economic downturn) I guess the strategy worked.

And let's be honest -- our lives are generally most enhanced by things you can't justify or put a price on. We all have moments that we can't ascribe meaning to which still somehow uplift and inspire us. And I think that's what Ralph Richardson was getting at -- the moments that are completely unnecessary yet manage to make life so special.

So here are two views of the Dubai Spectacle. Five minutes from CNN and then the same sequence from Ground Zero, right in the middle of the mayhem.

Enjoy the Shock and Awe -- and your Sunday.

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