Category Archives: Time

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.

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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/