Tag Archives: intermedial theatre

Brilliant Birmingham

A new academic year’s around the corner, which in addition to chilly weather and a pleasing number of beer and cider festivals means more trips for me up to the Shakespeare Institute’s home base, the University of Birmingham. Most of the daytime is spent in meetings, making plans for the semester to come, but around the edges of those days comes time to explore the city, to eat amazing food, to talk to people, and to head off to the theatre when night falls. In the past week I’ve been able to see three very different and very brilliant new plays, each fronted by the wonderful Birmingham Rep. They’re not all digital, and they’re certainly not all Shakespeare, but each seems relevant, in one way or another, to some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about on this blog.

Charles III by Mike Bartlett, on national tour. An imagined history play that opens with Prince Charles taking the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth… it’s not so much a Shakespeare adaptation as it is inspired by Shakespeare’s craft and style. Written mostly in verse, and with three interweaving plotlines, Bartlett’s play echoes questions about power and kingship that surface across Shakespeare’s history cycles while still feeling very much like a new and separate creation. The verse itself is, perhaps inevitably, strikingly different from Shakespeare’s own — lyrical passages or poetic phrasings are rare, with Bartlett instead favouring a more functional, prosaic, and often very funny brand of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean inflections build as the play progresses, most notably in the characterization of the three male royals: Charles emerges as a Richard II-eque anointed king, William as a seemingly inscrutable and ultimately rather crafty Bolingbroke, and Harry as, well, Prince Harry/Hal. The result is smart, provocative, and surprisingly profound. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Charles III is packed with philosophical and political debate, but it’s never straightforwardly ideological. It voices royalist and republican views, but it resists taking sides in its examination of what monarchy represents in the twenty-first century. How do we reconcile the glitz, the celebrity, and vapidity with the history, the ceremony, and tremendous energy that goes into keeping the idea of monarchical power, in such reduced shape and form, alive? Is this a ‘golden age of monarchy’, as Charles ironically calls it, which ‘bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning’? If so, what’s the point?

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton

Black Tonic, The Other Way Works, touring next to Bristol and Bradford. ‘Interactive theatre meets mini-break’, according to the production publicity, and that’s as good a one-line description as any I can think of. Staged in a real hotel (the Radisson Blu in Birmingham’s case), the show guides an audience of just four people through a detective story crossed with a meditation on the experience of space, time, and identity in a 24-hour, networked world. We begin in the lobby before taking the elevator up to ‘our room’, where scenes start occurring in the corridor, in our bedroom, in the room next door, in a conference room nearby, and eventually on the street outside of our window. The production makes the most of the strange no-space that corporate hotels can be: ‘we want you to think that you’re the only one who has slept in this bed’, a film on one of the room televisions tells us, that we’re in an intimate, safe, private space that exists only for us. And yet we know that this is in fact a strangely public space, that hundreds if not thousands of people have been here before us, that the labyrinthine corridors connecting our rooms lead us through alien, artificially lit spaces maintained at night by people we rarely see… in other words, The Shining was set in a hotel for a reason. I won’t give away too much about the plot, which centres around two different couples that a sinister relationship manager is trying to break up, but I will say that I found the production’s mix of narrative storytelling and ambient immersion brilliantly judged, and the acting and technical coordination truly impressive. Hiding in a bathroom with a fellow audience member and an actor, watching another scene unfold in the reflection of the mirror in front of us, was a voyeuristic and visceral highlight, as was setting my mind adrift in the soundscapes and visual beauty of the production’s two inset films. On a more techy/digital note, I left thinking about how digital modes of performance might integrate with very human, embodied, and experiential kinds of theatre, and furthermore how they can be as much about intimacy and isolation as about collectivity and the global.

Black Tonic 2015 Trailer from The Other Way Works on Vimeo.

A Translation of Shadows, Stan’s Cafe, touring around the UK. In a week of unusually difficult to describe shows, this one is perhaps the most summary-defying. But let’s try anyway… inspired by the early twentieth-century tradition of the Japanese benshi — that is, live performers who provided in-person narration for silent films (including dialogue and scenic description) — Stan’s Cafe’s new show explores the relationship between art and interpretation, showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis. In the process it also considers the relationship between art and reality, but let’s set that to the side for now… The show opens with an imaginary, modern-day benshi taking the stage, welcoming his audience, and introducing the film — Shadows — that we are about to see. The lights dim, the film begins, and so does the narration, which is energetic and amusing if fairly mundane (‘here’s a train’). The benshi‘s running commentary is rather like having the director’s track turned on while watching a DVD, with bits of trivia and anecdotes peppering the narration. He directs us in the art of reading a film (‘everything is included for a reason’), and he draws our attention to changes in camera perspective as well as the back stories of the actors. His approach is the antithesis of Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’, which argues that critical ‘interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’. And yet, as the play continues, he also becomes the illustration of her essay, with his increasingly controlling commentary revealing ‘a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else’. That something else is the story and the actors as he chooses to imagine and experience them, and so Prospero-like he begins interacting with and manipulating the ‘shadows’ that we’re watching on the screen. In a tweet after the show, I described it as Lost in Translation meets Synecdoche, New York meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I still think that’s as good a summary as I can manage; sometimes it’s easier and more accurate to say what something’s like than what it actually is. There’s one more show tonight in Birmingham, before the production sets off for Blackpool.

Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

So that’s it for a brilliant week in the theatre, which clearly left me with abundant food for thought. One final note is that at the start of the week I had the chance to visit Birmingham’s new Impact Hub in Digbeth, which is a creative co-working space dedicated to building ‘a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive’. They have some beautiful working spaces, and some really inspiring plans, and I hope to find myself back there, as well as the Birmingham REP, in the weeks and months to come.

The Impact Hub
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Call for Papers – Digital Shakespeare

Next year I’ll be co-organizing a seminar on ‘Digital Shakespeare’ for the World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 31 July – 6 August 2016, along with the fabulous Penelope Woods (University of Western Australia), Siobhan Keenan (De Montfort University), and Suzanne Westfall (Lafayette College).

The WSC happens once every five years and next year’s installment will truly be a special one, given that 2016 is also the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. The conference theme is ‘Creating and Re-creating Shakespeare’, and our seminar will look at the ways in which digital culture and technology is reshaping both the experience and study of Shakespearean performance today. Registration for the conference, and for seminars, is now open, so if the description below tempts you, please do sign up for our session.

 

 

Digital Shakespeare: Audiences and Scholars

The digital age has offered new opportunities and challenges for creators and performers of Shakespeare and has recalibrated the position and autonomy of audiences in performance. The 21st -century technological explosion has also increased the availability of theatrical records and commentaries, encouraging us to contemplate how pedagogy is changing, and how online resources such as Somerset and MacLean’s pioneering Patrons and Performances database may be used by wider communities to reflect on the early Shakespearean stage. This seminar invites papers interested in the influence of digital media and technologies on the modern performance and reception of Shakespeare around the world and/or that reflect on the digital ‘turn’ in early modern theatre history and its implications for future research on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Participants in the seminar might explore the nature and impact of live theatre broadcasting projects such as NT Live, Globe on Screen, or RSC Live; the creative use of digital technology on stage; social media and gaming technologies; the development and value of existing online databases and digital resources for early modern theatre history such as REED (Records of Early English Drama); and the challenges of using /developing online theatre history research resources now and in the future.

 

 

Visualizing the White Devil

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

Woke up this morning still thinking about the thrilling White Devil that I saw at the RSC last night. What I loved about Maria Aberg’s production was (1) it was visual, aural, multimedial, spectacular, (2) it was SMART about the text without being slavish, and (3) it was about NOW. It was also one of the first RSC shows I’ve seen to use video projections in a genuinely interesting, integrated, and artistic way. I was sitting to stage left last night so I couldn’t always make out the washes of image and color that would intermittently stretch over the stage, but I could see enough to realize that they were augurs of sorts of what was to come. In their own abstracted and beautiful way they seemed to represent Flamineo’s claim that ‘Man may his fate forsee, but not prevent’.

The production had a strong sense of mise-en-scène and created several visual tableaus that echoed and perhaps even cited other recent filmic phenomena, among them Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, the infamous ‘Blurred Lines’ video, The Sopranos, and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I can’t do a full review but I wanted to at least try to map out a few of these visual references with some of the pictures currently available from the production.

(1) ‘ORA PRO NOBIS’ = ‘PRAY FOR US’ (#thicke)

Elspeth Brodie and Lizzie Hopley in the House of Convertites in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

(2) The Cardinal and La Grande Bellezza‘s Jep Gambaradella – the most powerful men in Rome? They both wear white trousers too.

Simon Scardifield as Francisco and David Rintoul as Cardinal Monticelso in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

And this is pretty much exactly what Francisco wears, though I can’t find a picture:

But most important perhaps are are the opening party scenes, and especially the use of the hermetic white box behind plexiglass at the back of the stage, which reminded me very much of Jep’s 65th:

1

Why is it that the most antiseptic images are often the creepiest?

(3) A few more incidental echoes — Joan Iyiola’s Mercutian white wig and black mini-skirt, and Kirsty Bushell’s fallen angel:

(4) Cornelia as a slightly WASP-ier Carmela:

Peter Bray as Marcello and Liz Crowther as Cornelia in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison

And finally, the necromancer and other thugs (no pictures, alas) as less Romantic versions of Furio, The Sopranos‘ most gentlemanly assasin:


All in all, BRILLIANT. Seriously, go see it. (And really SEE it.)