Monthly Archives: April 2014

Shakespeareans in Paris: Notes on the Digital

Back today from a week-long conference in Paris, where I was talking about ‘Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time’. Unsurprisingly the email backlog is about a mile long, but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about digital Shakespeare at the conference before I forget…

Well, there actually isn’t too much to say — this was a fairly un-digital conference. Not that that’s a bad thing. There were several interesting plenaries, panels, and seminars, and I certainly didn’t mind spending as much digitally unmediated free time as possible around the Latin Quarter in Paris. There was a conference hashtag, though no one quite knew what it was (#shakes450? #shake450? #ParisShakes?). And there were only a few sessions that touched upon digital humanities issues, most often through the question of digital methods, rather than direct address of digital Shakespeare as subject matter itself.

Instead, much of the conference actually looked back — to Shakespearean celebration over time, and especially to the anniversaries in 1914 and 1916 that saw Shakespearean commemoration embedded in the traumatic politics of the Great War. Interestingly, some papers suggested that this was when we saw the emergence of a so-called ‘global’ Shakespeare, wrapped up in the processes of global politics, finance, and culture, that has become such a frequent focus in Shakespeare studies today.

A couple of exceptions though to the relatively un-digital conferencing I did last week. The first is that I met in person for the first time three MA graduates of the Shakespeare Institute’s distance learning programme. One is French and is now pursuing a PhD there, another lives in Abu Dhabi and is setting up a Shakespeare society there, and the other is based in Paris and is now doing a PhD with me and one of my colleagues. I’ve ‘known’ each of them for several years, but this was the first time that I got to see them in the flesh, give them a hug, and congratulate them on completing the MA (each with great aplomb). It was a lovely continuation of our relationships, and the shift from digital to in-person and now back to digital felt completely natural — we might be spread across great distances, but in festive moments like conferences both time and geography contract to bring us together in the most concentrated of ways. The only slightly unnerving and even funny moment was when one of the students recognized me in the queue for the bathroom and came up to me and asked — with puzzlement but also enthusiasm — ‘Who are you??’

The other noteworthy digital moment was the final plenary, given by Professor Sarah Hatchuel of the University of La Havre. Her excellent paper looked at how many of the blockbuster Shakespeare films of the 1990s are being pulled apart and repurposed in the digital world. She offered examples of YouTube mashups, video game homages, and theatre trailers, but without a doubt my favorite was the ‘Hamlet gone viral’ social media video created as a senior English project by a very creative high school student:

It’s the drama of Hamlet told through the world of online communication, and there are several moments that offer both witty and critically astute takes on the action and characterization in this story (a personal favorite — the Gmail nunnery scene at 4.00). I think what the project does especially well is suggest the extent to which we enact our own experience of interiority online. So Hamlet uses Google and Ask.com to look up information about grief, to ask anonymous questions about what to do if…, and of course he uses Facebook to navigate the confusing personal relationships making up his social world.

One thing that came up in the questions, and that is of especial interest to me, is the fact that most of Hatchuel’s examples (including the Hamlet) are primarily comic. While she rebutted that some of them were rather serious, I would suggest that the most effective and interesting examples were indeed essentially funny. For me this raises the question of how digital works as an artistic resource. Given the fact that much of our digital and digitized life is made up of the experience of fragments of information washing over us almost constantly (news headlines, interesting links, funny animal pictures, Upworthy videos), it makes sense I think that digital creativity is especially adept at the art of juxtaposition, wit, and subversion. A big question for me though is whether or not it can work in other genres too. Digital media constantly makes us laugh, but can it also make us cry? If so, what might that artform look like?

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Digital Theatre, Henry IV, and the Globe Style

So far my reflections on filmed theatre in this blog have concerned themselves centrally with live cinema broadcasts – but looking around online, in iMDB, in iTunes, and the like it’s very clear that many other forms of theatre-as-film exist for the viewing these days. One major player is Digital Theatre, a London media company that since 2009 has offered high quality, high definition recordings of major theatre, ballet, and opera productions for purchase and download. Amidst Digital Theatre’s current offering are about a dozen Shakespeare productions, including work from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Liverpool Everyman, the Almeida, and most significantly Shakespeare’s Globe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays recently, not least because the RSC has just begun an 8-month run of its newest productions of them, so I thought it would be interesting to go back in time, as it were, and have a look at the Globe’s very well regarded productions of these plays from 2010. I never saw them live myself – 2010 was the year of finishing my PhD, finding a job, getting married – but several of my friends and colleagues did and they’ve become a frequent reference point for talking about the ways the Henry IV  plays draw the audience into their world, most centrally through the character of Falstaff (played here by the wonderfully mischievous Roger Allam). So, the question is, how did this work on film?

Very well, I’d say. As with NTLive and RSC live, multiple cameras are used throughout (I counted six cameramen in the final credits, and that seems about right in terms of variety of angles offered in the films), but the work these cameras did seemed noticeably different to me. First and foremost, the shots are fairly fixed, occasionally tracking with an actor but avoiding the sweeps and pans that characterize (or at least punctuate) the broadcasts I’ve seen of late.

Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect this is partly due to technical set-up. Images of the audience are a frequent, and VERY WELCOME fixture in these films, with fringes of the groundlings almost constantly in view when we’re not in close-up (in fact many shots are framed in a way that looks like they are coming from a groundling spectator). Longer shots from what looks like the top gallery and (less frequently) the back of the pit show not only the full stage but also a very large proportion of the house and the audience that fills it, and it struck me that I never spotted a camera within these shots (although I must admit I wasn’t looking too hard). If audience space was blocked off to accommodate technical equipment, this must have been in the seated sections of the theatre and kept to a minimum, meaning I would suppose that the equipment was rather different than that used in the NT and RSC gigs. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of a camera crane in the house itself or in the kinds of shots offered in the films, and in this case I felt that the final product was the better for it.

That’s not to say that cranes and the shots they produce don’t have a place in theatre broadcasting, but rather that great things can be done without them – and perhaps especially in a theatrical space like the Globe. The Henry IV films certainly use mid-shots and close-ups, but only after setting the scene with wider shots of not just the stage but also the whole house. And in distinction I think to the RSC Richard II, which similarly attended to this kind of theatrical framing at the start and end of scenes, the Globe films returned frequently to wider pictures within the scenes themselves. As I’ve already mentioned, these shots were relatively stationary, occasionally panning a little bit with a particular character, with wider shots being used instead for group scenes so that the characters in them walked through the picture, rather than the picture moving with them.

More filmic techniques were limited to gradual zooms on a particular character while he gave a speech – I started to notice this especially towards the end of Part 2, for instance during Falstaff’s ode to sack after his scene with Prince John, which went from a full-length shot of Allam onstage to a head and shoulders shot that allowed us closer access to Allam’s surprisingly tender delivery of the line, ‘If I had a thousand sons…’ We saw this technique soon again when the King received the ‘happy news’ of the supressed rebellion, quickly overshadowed by the pains of his rapidly failing health, as well as during the mournful lines Hal speaks by his father’s deathbed. Very occasionally we also encountered more overtly self-conscious camera and editorial work, including the use of a divided, triptych-like screen at the start of each film, which offered sidelong views of the house to the left and right and scenes of the show to come in the centre. And at the end of Hal’s ‘I know you all’ speech in 1.2 of Part 1, the camera view receded to a wide-angled, upward shot of the Globe’s wooden ‘O’, offering a striking visual evocation of the experience of being in this atmospheric, open air space on a London summer night.

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But for the most part these moments that drew attention to the film as film were very few, and while I liked the more filmic touches I also appreciated the quiet, understated manner in which the productions were shot. They certainly backed off in the way I found myself wishing for in the Donmar Coriolanus, and the constant inclusion of the audience helped establish for me not only a feeling of the ‘theatrical’ as I watched these productions four years later from my iPad at home, but also added considerably to my experience of the individual performances, which were frequently audience-oriented — and nowhere more so than in the case of Allam’s Falstaff. These were without a doubt his shows. While Jamie Parker did an excellent job of bringing to life a winsome, loveable, if unconfident and eager-to-please Hal, Allam commanded not only the stage but also the whole theatre with his vivacious, incorrigible chancer of a Falstaff.

Like many of the Globe productions I’ve seen, these Henry IVs frequently, sometimes strenuously played Shakespeare’s lines for laughs, even within potentially serious or more poignant scenes such as Hotspur’s first encounter with Henry IV in Part 1 or Shallow’s reflections in the orchard in Part 2. But the ribaldry started to disappear towards the end of Part 2, with Allam’s Falstaff letting slip the odd glance of regret as the fun of Eastcheap, and of youth, began to fade from view. Things had changed, not only because Harry was spending more time in the court and less in the tavern, but much more importantly because time changes us all, whether we like it or not.

That said, to be able to look back in time in my own way to these productions at the Globe was certainly a treat. I’ll be thinking of them when I go to see the RSC’s Henrys this summer in the theatre and the cinema. The plays themselves offer an interesting take on what it means to be caught in two worlds, to be in time and out of time — something that increasingly interests me in terms of the digital. And while both sets of productions have been firmly period in terms of setting and costume, I think they have something important to say to us now about how identity is shaped by the ways in which we mediate between self and society everyday.

Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time

Next week I’m off to a conference in Paris marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I’ll be participating in a seminar on Shakespeare, festivals, and festivity, with my contribution focusing on the place of digital celebration and outreach within Shakespeare festivals. The post below sets out some of the questions I hope to raise concerning the nature of ‘the festival’ and that of ‘the digital’, and how these entities overlap, if at all. Time, synchronicity, boundedness, focus, and togetherness are all key issues in this discussion, I think, and I’m eager to find out where we might get with them as a group.

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In his introduction to the 1987 collection Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, the anthropologist Alessandro Falassi writes that festival environments are centrally defined by three factors: ‘time, space, and action’. Time, in the sense of normal, mundane time disrupted and suspended; space, in the sense of either everyday or, conversely, rarely used spaces claimed for collective festival activity; and action, in the sense of the intensification of special activities such as prayers, performances, or feasts not typically a part of daily life. Falassi suggests that when these three things come together, normal life ‘is modified by a gradual or sudden interruption that introduces “time out of time,” a special temporal dimension devoted to special activities’.

My question for this seminar on ‘Shakespearean Festivals in the Twenty-first Century’ is what might such a definition of festivity, and in particular its valuing of ‘time out of time’, mean for the growing use of digital connectivity and communication within Shakespearean festival settings? Do digital initiatives help enhance festive experience by allowing it to be extended in real-time to audiences otherwise cut off from the festival site (a corollary being televised sports events such as the World Cup or music events such as Glastonbury)? Or do they actually undermine festivity by disrupting the specificity and boundedness of time, place, and action upon which festivals depend, producing a more mundane experience of “time within time” – that is, an only partially festive experience mixed into the normal, digitally inflected rhythms of daily life?

How we answer such questions will depend at least in part on our own understanding and experience of digital technology, I think, and the role it plays for us in our day-to-day existence. In his recent book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014) (discussed earlier this year on this blog), the literary scholar Steven E. Jones argues that the entity once known as ‘cyberspace’ has finally ‘everted’, meaning that what was once imagined as an esoterically high-tech, completely immersive otherspace has transitioned into a more integrated, ubiquitous, and layered form of ‘mixed reality’ – or, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson prefers to put it, a kind of ‘augmented reality’. ‘People are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction [between them] is becoming increasingly irrelevant’, Jurgenson writes, and while Jones largely agrees, he also suggests that significant differences between digital and non-digital ways of being still persist, resulting in the increasingly common ‘paradox of living in two worlds at once’.

My interest is in how festival settings, with their unusual emphasis on time and presence – or, to put it another way, on ‘being there’ – have the potential to intensify this paradox of dual-citizenship, and to foreground the questions it raises about physically situated versus digitally mediated ways of being. Can a truly festive atmosphere emerge from a digital performance, or indeed from a digital conversation surrounding a ‘live’ performance? What kind of experience, for instance, is produced by a Twitter exchange around a shared festival hashtag, or the live-broadcasting of a festival performance, and can these kinds of activities be seen as festive in any way?

My working hypothesis is that digital modes of performance and engagement can effectively enhance and extend festivity, but that they don’t naturally do so, mainly because we tend to use them to evade the experience of boundedness and to promote the ability to be in multiple places at once. If, as Roger D. Abrahams suggests, ‘festivals seize on open spots and playfully enclose them,’ digital activity tends to do the opposite, seizing on existing, content-rich spots and fragmenting, layering, disassociating, and dispersing them. The challenge for festival organizers interested in harnessing the power of digital tools, then, is in finding ways of resisting this tendency, and of enabling a more focused, bounded, and ‘present’ form of engagement among digital festival-goers.

There are countless examples of digital activity within Shakespeare festival celebration that we might use to work through such issues, and I’ll be interested to hear about the different digital initiatives other members of the seminar have come into contact with through their own work on Shakespeare festivals around the world. For my own part, my research with Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson on the Shakespearean celebrations that were a part of the London 2012 Olympics (documented in www.yearofshakespeare.com and A Year of Shakespeare: Reliving the World Shakespeare Festival, 2013) has prompted me to pay special attention to the digital activity and experimentation that took place within and around the Shakespearean events planned as a part of that Olympic year. These events included the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Globe’s Globe to Globe Festival, the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and also the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies themselves, since three of them featured Shakespearean material.

Some notable digital initiatives arising from these events (both planned and otherwise) included the making of 36 of the Globe to Globe productions freely available online during the summer of 2012 on the ‘pop-up’ arts site TheSpace.org; the web-streaming of I, Cinna, Tim Crouch’s adaptation of Julius Caesar for the RSC, to schools across the UK; the creation of MyShakespeare (myshakespeare.rsc.org.uk), a gallery of digital work inspired by Shakespeare and hosted by the RSC; the creation of the Hollow Crown Fans Twitter group (@hollowcrownfans), currently 8,000+ members strong and growing; and the many online conversations that took place around all of these events through discussion boards and social media. In our seminar I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few of these examples of Shakespearean digital festivity, both as a way of exploring the nature of the festival itself as well as the relationship of the digital to it.

References

Abrahams, Roger D. ‘An American Vocabulary of Celebrations.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 175-183.

Falassi, Alessandro. ‘Festival: Definition and Morphology.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 1-10. [PDF currently available online at http://bit.ly/1m02RRR]

Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Jurgenson, Nathan. ‘Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropologist (a critique).’ Cyborgology blog. 10 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/10/amber-case-cyborg-anthropologist-a-critique/

—–. ‘Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.’ Cyborgology blog. 24 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/

Stage, space, and celebrity: Coriolanus at the Donmar

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Like thousands of other people across the UK, in January I made my way to my local cinema to see Tom Hiddlest— er, Coriolanus, broadcast live from the Donmar Warehouse to the silver screen. The Donmar is a small theatre – 251 seats, according to my A4 programme – so it’s not unusual for it to sell out, but it doesn’t usually do so so quickly, and so entirely, as it did for this Shakespearean production. I knew going into the show that people liked Tom Hiddleston, apparently dubbed ‘the sexiest man on the planet’ by MTV (as we were reminded in the interval programming), but I didn’t know quite how much. I was lucky to see him live in 2006 in Cheek by Jowl’s The Changeling, and then again the following year as both Posthumus and Cloten in their Cymbeline, before his star ascended and tickets to his productions turned almost literally into gold dust. He was excellent in both shows, and in particular Cymbeline, where he had more to do and his doubling of the male leads added to the surreal, maze-like quality of that strangely charming play (not to mention that he made Cloten a lot more attractive than is usually the case).

This time around, Hiddleston was undoubtedly the main draw, and again he made a typically taciturn character – Caius Martius, later Coriolanus – into a suppler, more emotionally rich figure than we have perhaps come to expect. For me that interiority was achieved against the grain and even in spite of Shakespeare’s text, the result being that Hiddleston’s supremely watchable and even enthralling performance could never be a definitive Coriolanus for me – not enough sneering violence, not enough sociopathy. He was still great, though, and I’d love to see him as a Brutus, or even a Hamlet, in the years to come.

For someone interested in the relationship between the filmed and stage version of this production, Hiddleston’s involvement provided an interesting test case. His celebrity itself blurs the boundaries of theatre and film, encouraging audiences from one realm to enjoy the delights of the other. More than a few newspaper reviews of the production noted the youthfulness of its audience, the implication being that this Coriolanus helped generate interest both in Shakespeare and in theatre among groups more typically drawn to blockbuster cinema – and if that is true, then all the better. On a much more practical note, though, Hiddleston being in this show meant that there was no way in hell I was going to get a ticket to it, and that I was one among many in such a situation. Live broadcasting to cinemas becomes all the more pertinent in such circumstances. With demand far exceeding supply, new possibilities for access to the production meet a clear and demonstrable need. My cinema in Stratford-upon-Avon was filled to the brim, with at least two ‘encore’ screenings to follow, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if most other cinemas broadcasting it across the country were met with a similarly fulsome crowd.

The remarkable demand for tickets for this production, however, means that any discussion for me of the broadcast itself must be limited to that – the broadcast alone. And it was an interesting one. To date all of the broadcasts and live filmings that I’ve seen of Shakespearean productions have been from relatively large, spacious stages, often with a very strong sense of place: the Globe in London (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Globe to Globe), the RSC mainstage in Stratford-upon-Avon (Richard II), the amphitheatric Olivier at the National (Othello), a highly atmospheric, reclaimed church in Manchester (Macbeth). The Donmar, with its intimate scale and spare black-box of a stage, is a markedly different kind of space, and not one that necessarily lends itself to visual tableaus or epic camera sweeps. What would the screened experience be like?

The first indication we got of an answer came in the form of an overt Brechtianism that was starkly distinctive from the more pictorial setting evoked at the start of the RSC’s Richard II in November. Young Martius ran on with a paintbrush splashed with red and swiftly drew a large square outline around the stage-space, a bloody chalk circle of sorts. Inside was a single vertical ladder, behind a set of empty chairs and Roman graffiti projected on the back wall. But while these physical features may have gestured towards a Brechtian theatre of alienation, or even the German playwright’s own staunchly socialist reworking of the play in the 1950s (retitled Coriolan), neither possibility evolved into something more significant once the production really got going.

London Coriolanus 013

Instead, in the play’s opening scene we encountered a chaotic, disjointed mob, angry in their demands and reckless in their threats. The camera moved rapidly, coming at the actors from all three sides of the Donmar stage, with the swift and sometimes dramatic cuts between different angles adding to a sense of frantic divisibility. This was in no way the ordered, noble citizenry assembled at the start of Brecht’s play, but rather a disgruntled fringe spurred on by a particularly aggressive First Citizen, whose longer speeches were cut (‘We are accounted poor citizens…’, ‘If the wars eat us not up, they will…’) and whose belligerent, bullying lines were accentuated (‘Let us kill him!’, ‘He did it to please his MOTHER!’). Very little camera time was offered to either Citizen Two or Three, and once Menenius/Mark Gatiss/Mycroft entered the stage the focus turned resolutely to him and his mincingly triumphant, if heavily curtailed, belly fable.

Until, that is, Caius Martius/Tom Hiddleston came into the scene – and all the cuts to the preceding action meant that his entrance occurred easily within the first ten minutes of the show, perhaps even the first five. With the camera fixed on him, and the three citizens positioned at separate corners of the square stage, Martius was alpha dog to their skittish, ineffective pack – the un-unified, undignified ‘fragments’ he imagines them to be. When he scornfully announced that they would be granted tribunes to represent them, they whooped and hollered on stage, but to no clear political end. The victory seemed to be more in winning itself than in the gain of any real power or authority.

In terms of the filmic style, the chief visual mode for this production was no doubt the close-up, and what’s more the close-up from many angles. I counted upwards of 42 changes in the sequence that leads to Martius’ banishment, which probably occurred over roughly 80 lines in performance. This meant that we were averaging close to one camera shot per 1-2 lines, the result being a very directed point of view.

Not long after attending this broadcast I watched an extended interview with the British director Steve McQueen, known for his use of resolutely, even unsettlingly, long takes in his films. In response to a question about a 17-and-a-half-minute long shot in his 2008 film Hunger, which features a dense and fiery conversation between the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and a priest, McQueen described the long shot, especially when it contains multiple characters, as one that demands a different kind of watching from its audiences. While conversations divided into close-ups project the location or meeting point of the conversation into the audience itself, the long, sustained, and wider shot requires the audience to project themselves into the scene, to acknowledge themselves as spectators and voyeurs and to make sense of that experience.

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In a way McQueen seems to be saying that in film the long shot is more radical and involving because it observes what we might call the fourth wall, while the broken up, sequenced shot is less so because it directs the story straight into the world of the audience member, obscuring any sense of theatrical divide. This seems somewhat at odds with how theatre historians and performance critics often understand the observation or ‘breaking’ of the fourth wall, but I suppose in a cinematic broadcast we are dealing with two frames of reference – the theatrical one and the cinematic one – and that we are in turn navigating a potentially double divide. What is the result?

Well, the honest answer is that I still don’t entirely know, but my sense is that many theatrical broadcasts are dealing with it by trying to jump over and beyond it. This Coriolanus was very intimate, even claustrophobic – though to be fair, the Donmar as a space is too, so wide or distant perspectives simply aren’t a part of the theatrical experience it offers. One thing that struck me throughout the broadcast was how so many of the full-stage shots came from either above or below eye-level, almost as if the camera had to back into the upper and lower crevices of the space in order to squeeze in the wider view. And while many shots tracked with the actors, few if any tracked through them – that is, moved through the stage space even if the actors themselves were more or less stationary (something I found especially compelling in the Richard II broadcast). Occasionally, we were treated to a level and fairly open view of the stage from one of the downstage corners, which for me were the most effective shots. With them I felt that I had a perspective that offered a fuller understanding of the theatrical space and the actors within it, without feeling so cramped or craned.

But for the most part, the multi-angle close-up predominated, offering an emotional intimacy and naturalism that highlighted what seemed to me to be an especially and even excessively emotional Coriolanus. It was certainly unBrechtian in this regard – the constant approach was that of empathy, identification, interiority, with Coriolanus himself very much the victim and very little the enemy of the people. Haughty, yes, but more foolhardy than anything else. Tears were in abundance, and the camera worked hard to highlight them as much as possible – in the first domestic scene, close ups on Virgilia’s silent tears worked to sculpt a greater sense of character out of what is ultimately a very tiny part, and in the closing sequence Coriolanus’s own steady tears became the chief visual motif running through the supplications of his wife, child, friend, and mother.

Perhaps it was the Coriolanus that this space, and this actor, demanded – in the interviews preceding the broadcast, Josie Rourke described the Donmar as ‘a deeply psychological space that has to be enormously truthful’, and for me Hiddleston’s very moving, very ‘truthful’ Coriolanus was most absorbing even when he was most outside what I think the part actually demands. It’s understandable, then, that the camera work in this broadcast sought to capture and even heighten these strengths, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted the visual frame to slow down, and to back off. I wanted to see and explore more of the stage space on my own terms, to attend to Hiddleston’s powerful presence and even celebrity within the context of the whole theatre (audience included). I wanted the visual narrative to breathe. But maybe that’s not how this production worked, irrespective of the screen.