King Kong—the new musical currently showing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne—feels like the kind of musical Carl Denham might make. Denham, the fictional film director from the Kong story, is an old-school showman in the P.T. Barnum mould. He loves spectacle, shock, and awe–be it in the form of dancing, barely clad blondes, or a giant, mythical ape captured from Skull Island and shipped to New York.
That the King Kong musical might’ve been made by its own fictional—and somewhat tragically misguided character–is in many ways indicative of the production’s lack of self-awareness. The Kong story has always been about the transfixing appeal of spectacle, and how it can harm and delight in equal measure (‘It was beauty that killed the beast,’ is Denham’s most enduring line). Yet the spectacle on show in King Kong’s latest incarnation is mostly just intended to delight, which it does with varying degrees of success.
That King Kong might’ve been made by Denham is also, in its own way, a compliment. Spectacle might be Denham’s passion, but it’s also what King Kong does best (its weird, leering approach to women’s bodies aside). Kong himself is a revelation, and is really what the production is primarily interested in. Powered by 35 on-stage and off-stage puppeteers, the massive puppet rightfully dominates the show both in terms of sheer size and spectacle.
Yet while it is easy to criticise King Kong for focussing on spectacle at the expense of plot or character, it is nevertheless important to remember that spectacle—with or without plot—has always been close to the heart of not just the Kong story, but the stage itself.
In Renaissance Europe, for example, the masque was a popular kind of courtly entertainment that, while similar to theatre and other kinds of performance, could be mostly or even entirely focussed on spectacle. Often, complicated machines of the stage were invented in the service of particularly spectacular masques: revolving stages, movable hanging clouds, thunder and lightening machines, prisms for visual effects, even some flying monsters that must count as the great ancestors of Kong. These great contraptions amazed audiences in the 16th and 17th centuries in much the same way that Kong does in 2013.
Spectacular stagecraft continued well into the romantic era, with Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk approach to opera calling for monumental stagings of flying Valkyries in his Ring cycle, among other spectacular visions. Today, the purest of staged spectacle looks something like the magic shows and self-conscious illusions of Las Vegas, something which contemporary ‘good’ taste usually decries as gauche, but nonetheless finds a home in this long tradition.
What’s fascinating about such spectacle is that it operates on a double, almost contradictory logic. On the one hand, spectacle allows audiences to imagine that the illusion is real—that Kong is as much a living character as any that human actors might portray. It lets the viewer dream the stage away, and to look on the performance as if it were reality.
On the other hand, spectacle is often at its most breathtaking when its artifice is clearly visible. As Norman Klein, a historian of spectacle and special effects asks, ‘what good is sleight of hand if you cannot see the hand?’ Kong is spectacular not just because of his awesome size and possibilities of expression, but because the audience can quite clearly witness the virtuosity of his many on-stage handlers, who quite literally crawl over Kong in order to create the performance.
Thefore it’s fitting that King Kong should find a home at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. The Regent is one of Melbourne’s most glorious architectural mish-mashes—a Renaissance exterior, and an elaborate Rococo interior, complete with mis-matching classical Ionic and Corinthian Greek columns. It’s a self-consciously spectacular architectural style that pays little regard to convention and the requirements of good taste. Instead, it wows visitors with a purely artificial kitchen-sink mentality. A little of this, and a little of that.
It’s the perfect blend of wrong-footed history, spectacle, and virtuosic performance for King Kong the musical. Carl Denham would’ve loved it.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Find him on Twitter.