Spoiler alert: If you’d like the surprises of the Olympics Opening Ceremony to remain surprises, then stop reading now.
Over the past two years, around 10,000 volunteers learned that they’d be participating in the Olympics Opening Ceremony. They then received a gag order. It forbids them from sharing details of the show and from posting images on Facebook or Twitter.
Silencing performers, however, is far easier than silencing the roughly 120,000 people who attended two dress rehearsals earlier this week. The leaks—for instance, that Queen Elizabeth opened Buckingham Palace to Daniel Craig so he could pre-record a segment as James Bond—was inevitably going to grow from a trickle to a flood. But that didn’t stop Danny Boyle, the creative director of the ceremony and the man behind films like Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, from displaying “#savethesurprise” on jumbo-trons inside the stadium.
Fighting Twitter with Twitter was never going to work—not even with a little help from YouTube, which has reportedly removed leaked footage. We now know that the show, which begins at 9 p.m. London (or 4 p.m. New York), starts with the chime of the world’s largest harmonically tuned bell. From there Boyle takes us on a journey through British history—not in the drawn-out way of Athens and Beijing—but one driven by humor and whimsy.
Britain is initially set up as a pastoral ideal. At some point in the show—which spans 1896 to the present—shadow and light effects transform the green grass into a wasteland, as dancers suggest pollution by pretending to drive cars and open the trunks of vehicles. The parable on industrialization isn’t a total downer. There’s reportedly a great deal of audience participation. Cables that traverse the roof come in handy as a number of characters take to the air.
One flight of fancy nods to British literature. A battalion of 30 Mary Poppins will soar across the stadium to square off with a 40-ft. figure meant to represent the evil Lord Voldemort. Dementors will terrorize children, who, in a previous scene, dance on hospital beds. Characters from other childhood classics—rehearsal attendees have named “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”—will somehow figure into the mix, too.
Boyles honors other aspects of Britain. In what will certainly be interpreted as comment on the public sector cuts, Depression-era protestors dance alongside nurses meant to honor Britain’s National Health Service. Elsewhere, one part of the stadium will transform into the Empire Windrush, a ship that ferried Jamaican migrants to Britain in 1948. It marked the first surge in West Indian migration to the U.K. following World War II.
After the history comes the music. Homegrown acts including Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah will make appearances. Other acts—who still remain a mystery—will reportedly perform songs by the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and the Who. Paul McCartney will close the show with “Hey Jude,” encouraging the crowd to sing along.
Boyle’s plea for locked lips comes several weeks after he revealed many of the details himself. Well aware it would be a tough slog to match Beijing in terms of glitz and sheer spectacle, Boyle decided to keep it real. He cast real farmyard animals—including two goats, three cows, 10 chickens, 10 ducks and 70 sheep—to recreate Britain’s “green and pleasant land” inside the Olympic stadium. Unveiling a replica of the set on June 12, the Slumdog Millionaire director described the British countryside as “something that still exists, and something that cries out to all of us like a childhood memory.”
The $42 million extravaganza, entitled “Isles of Wonder,” will see a cast of thousands dance on top of the simulated landscape, which will come replete with real soil, real grass, a village cricket team and ploughs. “[There] will be real clouds that will be hanging over the stadium,” he told reporters. “Work that out if you can. We know we’re an island culture and an island climate. One of these clouds will provide rain on the evening, just in case it doesn’t rain.”
A giant “river”—represented in Boyle’s model by sparkly paper—will surround the countryside, allowing athletes to walk on water as they enter the Olympic Arena. A massive replica of Glastonbury Tor—a pagan hill in southwest England sits at one end of the stadium. Hundreds of members of the public will crowd before it during the ceremony in a mosh pit. On the other end of the stadium, revelers will fill a second mosh pit which, bizarrely, will be “more like the last night of the proms”—Britain’s classical music festival which is staged every summer. “We hope the two mosh pits will do battle with each other,” Boyle said.
The latter mosh pit will be situated near the stadium’s enormous bell. “The 1948 games brought to London nations that had been at war,” Boyle said. “The bells weren’t rung during the war. They rang to announce the peace. So we will begin our ceremony with a symbol of peace.”
Britain’s Daily Mail previously compared the mock-up of the stadium to a set from the children’s program the Teletubbies. But Boyle maintains the set will help give the ceremony a moving narrative arch. He previously disclosed that lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest inspired him. “Be not afeared,” read the lines from the play. “The isle is of full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”
Volunteers involved with the opening ceremony have told TIME that the show will carry a heavy environmental theme. Dancers will mime the various ways in which urban sprawl threatens the British countryside. The lush countryside will also transform into a black and dreary landscape at one point, apparently aided by the 500 LED fixtures and 1,100 automated lamps on tap. It all fits with some of the comments Boyle made during a recent press conference: “This is a festival of celebration of an Olympic ideal. But it’s not a naïve show,” he said. “We’re trying to show the best of us but we’re also trying to show many different things about our country. The growth of cities is an extraordinary phenomenon that is clearly linked to the growth of the Olympic Games.”
Suttirat Larlarb, the sought-after costume designer who worked with Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire, has teamed up with him again for the event. Speaking with TIME in early June, she emphasized that Boyle has kept the 80,000 stadium spectators in mind—not merely the billions watching on television. “We don’t want to rob the stadium audience of anything because we’re only thinking about the television audience,” she says. “What happened in Beijing was a completely massive, spectacular, overwhelmingly beautiful television experience. And yet some people will say that when they were in the stadium they didn’t feel connected to it at all because it was devised for the television.”
Given the fact that most of the 10,000 people involved in the London ceremony are volunteers, the costume fittings and practice sessions took place at nights and on weekends. “It’s quite a ride, and every week we accomplish more and see things coming together,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so many spine-tingling moments just looking at a prototype of something.”
Note: This original version of this story was published on June 13, 2012. It was updated on July 25 to reflect new developments.