Why South Pacific is so much more resonant now

South Pacific should have been the big centrepiece musical of the 2020 Chichester Festival Theatre summer season.

Gina Beck as Nellie and Julian Ovenden as Emile - photo Johan Persson
Gina Beck as Nellie and Julian Ovenden as Emile - photo Johan Persson

Instead, it has opened the 2021 summer season, running from July 5-September 4.

Julian Ovenden, who plays Emile de Becque, admits that after all this time he feels both “ridiculously prepared and also a little bit underprepared.

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“I have not been on a stage for a while. The last play I did was All About Eve in 2019 though I have still managed to do quite a bit of other work since.

“This past year has been up and down. That’s the best way to describe it. But it does make you recalibrate in some ways. I suppose it makes you think what is important and what isn’t and what kinds of things you might like to do when the world returns.

“I just feel like the world has changed so much in the past two years. We have all done quite a lot of looking inwards and quite a lot of looking outwards.”

And South Pacific is actually a very good piece as we try to make sense of it all.

It’s a show which has gained even more significance given all that we have been through in the 16 months or so since it was first announced as a production for 2020, Julian believes.

“We have all been dealing with so much isolation. We have been dealing with racial issues.

“We have all been dealing with forgiveness to a certain degree and we have been dealing with globalism and popularism and about how small or how big the world is and our part in it as individuals and together.

“I am playing a character who is anti-racist even though he is a plantation owner which is a lovely and interesting paradox to start with.”

Julian’s point is that South Pacific is a piece which has long needed a reassessment and that now is precisely the moment.

“Lots of people will remember having watched South Pacific on Boxing Day in 1992 or whatever.

“And I don’t think the film has got a terribly good reputation anyway. But actually the piece is a masterpiece which touches on so many things that are still with us today.

“It is no surprise that it was uncomfortable for a lot of people in America to watch back in 1953 or whenever, and in some places it was banned. It is still banned on some university campuses today for different reasons.

“They think it promotes certain Asian stereotypes, and in some ways it does.

“And that is the task for us now, to properly investigate those characters and to give them a full strong voice in this production.

“If you look at various incarnations of the show, it does feel a bit of an identikit show in those productions, and I can’t bear anything like that.

“The reason I am interested now is the way (CFT artistic director Daniel Evans who is directing the show) is wanting to look at it and investigate it properly and present it properly for a 21st century audience.”

Tickets for South Pacific are on www.cft.org.uk