The curse of Lear? — NTLive, 2011 and 2014

Macbeth is the Shakespearean play actors and directors are most superstitious about, but I wonder if Lear might be gaining on the ol’ Scottish play as far as live recordings go? The most famous instance of technical mishap in other otherwise fairly seamless NTLive series remains Michael Grandage’s 2011 production of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Derek Jacobi. I didn’t see it, but in a much discussed snafu the picture transmission went dead at one point, leaving cinema audiences listening to the production but looking at a black screen. The stage manager eventually had to come on and stop the performance while the technical team fixed the satellite link, at which point the company took the scene again from the top. The incident caught people’s attention not so much for the technical failure in and of itself (surely things like this are bound to happen at some point), but rather for the way it raised questions about who the primary audience really is in a live theatre relay. We might imagine that the ‘real’ audience during a broadcast remains the couple of hundred people live and present in the theatre, but in fact doesn’t it have to be — and indeed shouldn’t it be — the several thousand people live and present in the cinema?

This past Thursday the NTLive series featured another King Lear, this time produced by the National itself and featuring director Sam Mendes and actor Simon Russell Beale back together again in a continuation of their longstanding Shakespearean partnership. I found a lot to like in this production — in particular Beale’s very naturalistic, even medicalized interpretation of Lear’s madness, and Kate Fleetwood’s stunning realization of Goneril’s barbed vulnerability — but I want to briefly reflect on this production’s own set of technical hiccups. They were in no way as significant as the 2011 incident mentioned above, but they still produced moments in which the broadcast drew attention to itself as a filmic mediation, chiefly due to a few instances of things going wrong.

The first happened during Kent’s altercation with Oswald (I think in 2.1 outside of Gloucester’s, rather than 1.4 at Goneril’s, but I’m still getting used to taking notes in very dark cinemas…). Somehow Kent’s body mic must have been moved or damaged in the stage fight, resulting in a heavy sound distortion and crackling that producers quickly switched off. The sound mix was as a result much quieter for a short period of time following this, though I wouldn’t say that it significantly impeded the ability of the cinema audience to engage with the production. I did wonder though if this hitch caught the production team off guard and led to the problems that followed, or if it was all just coincidence. When Lear and the Fool arrived at Gloucester’s castle to find Kent in the stocks, the Fool sat with Kent at the bottom of a demagogic statue of Lear for some of their bantery lines. The camera started to pan beyond the two of them (perhaps thinking that the Fool was going to move that way?), then hesitated, and then zoomed from mid-shot to wide-shot very suddenly, getting everyone centered and back in view. Later in the same scene, when Lear pleaded with Regan over her involvement in Kent’s punishment and his own treatment in his daughters’ households (‘No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse…’), the camera again started to pan in one direction, halted, then scooted back quickly in the other. And finally, in the production’s harrowing, closing scene, some body mic trouble re-emerged as Lear pulled Cordelia’s lifeless body to him, muffling and thumping the sound of his final speech in the process.

I’d say these were all small moments of confusion, though, and if anything they served to remind audiences that these broadcasts are indeed live, and vulnerable to occasional difficulties. They really didn’t bother me — in fact, I found the confused camera pans strangely endearing — but I have noticed people talking about them in the aftermath of the broadcast, which has in turn meant more discussion of the broadcast itself as a technical and creative event (rather than as a transparent medium through which the theatre production is realized).

My personal opinion is that the overall broadcast was not that dissimilar from the other NTLive work I’ve seen — at the risk of banging on about the same point in these posts, I found that the camera work frequently divided the staging up more than I’d like, using mid-shots and close-ups to push us into a particular character’s finely detailed psychological world but at the expense of cutting other important exchanges and spacial relationships out. When Lear started to deliver his ‘I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus…’ speech in Goneril’s home, it was not clear to me until nearly the end of the speech that his daughter was still on the stage. When Edgar told us that his ‘country gives [him] proof and precedent / Of Bedlam beggars’ wandering the countryside, we could vaguely spy a crowd of destitute men emerging in the background, no doubt composed from this production’s very ample cast, but any larger scenic effect was lost. And when the storm on the heath finally shook Lear’s world, the camera divided up the exchanges between the different characters in a way that made the composite use of the stage very hard to imagine — in my notes I jotted down that the ‘camera work breaks the stage apart, turns it into a set’.

Still, there were moments of brilliant composition that I wouldn’t trade. The close-up on Lear and Gloucester in the Dover scene, when Lear finally addressed his companion soberly and directly (‘I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester’), allowed us to witness the full range of Stephen Boxer/Gloucester’s devastating reaction. In a very different mode, the crane shot that swooped down to Gloucester as he stood on the ‘cliff’ was absolutely stunning — it offered a sense of the vertiginous beauty and terror that we might imagine while reading the scene, but that can be very difficult to create on the stage. Though I haven’t yet seen this Lear on stage at the National, I’d wager that the filmic very likely exceeded the staged in these moments — but I’ll refrain from speculating any more until I have the chance to test this hypothesis at the end of this month.

I suppose what I’m saying overall is that this Lear showed the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that for me have been present in other NTLive broadcasts, but also that its more explicit technical hitches brought attention to it as a broadcast in a way that I think is productive. Like the 2011 Lear showing (re-edited for Encore performances and also the NT archive), it offers us an interesting case of how these broadcasts work, not just in the filming itself but also in the reaction to it.

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3 thoughts on “The curse of Lear? — NTLive, 2011 and 2014

  1. Very enjoyable and insightful post. 🙂

    Your observations brings up some basic Mass Media principles. There is an issue of different forms of mass media having different codes and conventions. Technically, if the intent was accurately imitate the live theatre experience then the single camera position should be fixed in terms of distance and angle with limited panning. It would approximate the audience member sitting in the seat.

    Since the live production is presented live on a theatre screen, the actual codes & conventions are a combination of live television broadcast ( the early days of television) blended with the advanced elements of contemporary large movie screen codes and conventions.

    In effect, live broadcast of theatre performances on a movie theatre screen have their own codes & conventions ( with all the hiccups ). This means it is a new medium to be explored and developed. There is potential to evolve a new art form – a fusion live theatre and the movie/television camera.

  2. Thanks so much for your perceptive comments — I couldn’t agree more! It’s fascinating learning about the earlier history of theatre broadcasting, and to think about the similarities and differences in the NTLive programme.

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