Tag Archives: NTLive

Celebrating the digital, part 2 — new directions

Earlier this week I posted a piece about three recent digital Shakespeare anniversaries — the 6-month anniversary of this blog, the 5-year anniversary of NTLive, and the 1-year anniversary of the RSC and Google+’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. Today I want to follow that up with some discussion of the recent re-launch of the digital arts site TheSpace.org, and the possible new avenues it may open up for online creativity and performance.

Originally developed as a pop-up site for the digital side of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, The Space returned last week as a new and more permanent gallery for the digital arts in the UK. While the old Space included a wide range of digital offerings, including the free streaming of recordings of 37  Globe to Globe Shakespeare productions, we are told that the new Space will leave broadcasting initiatives to BBC Arts Online and will instead turn its focus to more radical engagements with creative form. That means content that is more like Midsummer Night’s Dreaming and less like Globe to Globe streaming, as demonstrated by the kind of work generated by the #hackthespace all-night opening event at the Tate Modern last weekend.

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Hackers hacking. #hackthespace

While the new version of the site is still young and content is in the process of being developed, there are a few initial offerings that caught my eye. The most high-profile piece featured in the new Space was an iPad drawing from David Hockney of a lily against a mauve background. I say was because in the process of writing this post I realized that the lily, titled ‘1062’, has been taken down, and all the links to the Telegraph coverage of it are now mysteriously broken (to be fair, The Space responded to my tweet below saying that the Hockney was a a special and time-limited offering just for the launch). At the moment the drawing can still be seen in this Channel 4 story about the new Space, about halfway down the page. A couple of things about the work really interest me — first, the title, which to some extent highlights the potentially mechanized status of digital art (especially considering the fact that Hockney, unlike some artists, doesn’t tend to use numerical titles for his paintings), and second, the fact that the ‘drawing’ is actually an animation that allows you to watch the composition of the flower from start to finish. For me the work was much more interesting for the insight it gave into Hockney’s process, and I’d be interested to know if the 2-minutes’ worth of animation was in real-time or sped up. How long does it take to create a piece of digital art?

Leaving the question of the disappearing Hockney aside, the other work on the new Space that most interests me is a theatre piece called Longitude. Written by Tim Wright, one of the creatives behind the RSC’s 2010 digital experiment, Such Tweet SorrowLongitude uses Google Hangouts (as did Midsummer Night’s Dreaming) to broadcast three 20-minute episodes of a new play about global climate change and water shortage. It’s fashioned as a thriller, set in a near future that sees ocean levels rising, weather patterns intensifying, and clean water disappearing. The action connects actors in Lagos, Barcelona, and London, roughly all on the same longitude line, as they communicate with each other about a dodgy water deal that seems destined to go wrong. There’s still one more episode to go on 23 June at 6pm GMT, with a Q&A to follow, and episodes 1 and 2 can be watched online in the meantime (see ep. 1 below).

I’ll be interested to know more about the logistics of the performance, specifically how the live action and broadcasting is coordinated, since I had initially assumed it was pre-recorded based on cued technical break-ups in some of the video conferencing that were part of the dramatic action. With Auslander fresh in my mind I’m also interested in how the production’s liveness, a feature emphasized in its promotion on Twitter and The Space, might contribute to its status as theatre rather than television, film, or something altogether new. In any case it’s a really interesting example of possible new directions for digital performance, and the fact that it’s also partly commissioned by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) points towards a growing and more widespread interest in what the digital, in all its infinite variety, may have to offer the performing arts today.

So lots to celebrate, I’d say, and much to look forward to. While I think that it’s right that we question the remit and scope of the so-called ‘digital’, and that we push ourselves to define how we’re using it in different contexts (a point discussed in part 1 of this post), I also think it’s important to allow it space to range somewhat wildly across form and platform, and to see what happens. By ‘what happens’ I mean not only what creative artists and producers come up with, but also how audiences of all different  digital competencies engage with and use it. And it looks like we’ll have more opportunity for this in the near future — just yesterday The Space announced a competition for £20,000 of seed money for the UK company that submits the most promising proposal for a new work of digital theatre. So stay tuned.

Image by kind permission of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Core by Kurt Hentschläger, A digital installation commissioned by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, with support from Arts Council England as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
The new face of digital theatre?
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Celebrating the digital — anniversaries

June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.

More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?

Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:

It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).

Remember these guys? Napster, 1999.

But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.

Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.

It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.

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.

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.

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.

hunger

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.

Stage versus screen? The RSC’s Richard II

The other week I did something unusual, at least for me – I saw the same Shakespeare production back-to-back, going to a Tuesday matinee and then a Wednesday evening performance. But this was repetition with a difference. While I attended the matinee performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II live and in person in Stratford-upon-Avon, I went to the Wednesday night show at a packed-out cinema in London, where they were live broadcasting a video transmission of David Tennant and Greg Doran’s take on Shakespeare’s historical tragedy.

I’ve seen live broadcasts of theatre before, namely through the thriving NTLive series, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same production in person and in cinema, and it’s an experience that merits some reflection. The first thing I should say is that I was surprised by how similar the two were. And if that sounds daft, let me explain – having been fully converted to the mantra that theatre is different every night, I was struck by the care with which particular, and in some cases rather small, performance choices were reiterated almost identically across the two performances. Bushy drew his bare left foot in as Bolingbroke pronounced his supposed crimes and death sentence; the Duchess stared feverishly down the barrel of her husband’s coffin as she imagined Mowbray’s bloody death; and Richard and Aumerle laughed with perfectly replicated timing when the King offered to place the hollow crown on his friend-turned-lover’s head.

But more importantly, and more pertinently for this response to the live broadcast, my sense of the overarching performance experience that emerged through a succession of camera angles and edits for the cinema screen in London very closely matched the one that I had perceived in-person in Stratford the day before. Perhaps this was due to an unconscious filling in of scenic and performance detail on my part – it would have been interesting, I think, to have seen the filmed version first, and then the in-person show, since one of my main difficulties with previous broadcast experiences has been a sense of confusion as to where particular characters are located on the stage, or indeed what the wider stage-space itself looks like. In Kenneth Branagh’s recent Macbeth, for instance, which I saw only via cinema broadcast, I found myself struggling at the outset to place the witches in the theatrical space, introduced to us as they were in tight close up. Had I also seen the Macbeth in-person the day before, I would have known that the witches came out of a door placed low in the side stage wall, irrespective of what the camera chose to show me.

But that said, I’m fairly confident that this RSC broadcast presentation of Richard II, produced by John Wyvermixed camera angles and perspectives in a more varied, measured, and – for me – satisfying way than in any live broadcast I’ve previously seen. Crucially, wide shots of not only the full stage space but also fringes of audience appeared frequently throughout the filming, and almost always at the start and close of every scene. This meant that as cinema audiences we had knowledge of the wider layout and use of the stage in each scene before we moved into more closely framed shots. In many live broadcasts, continuous close ups seem to be the norm, a tendency I can understand given how accustomed we as audiences are to getting this intimate perspective in television and film. But in live performance recording I often find it awkward, and even boring, especially when the shot is tightened to just the head and shoulders. While these shots give us unprecedented access to actors’ facial expressions, offering us a proximity not available even to in-person audience members seated in the front row, they also trap the actors’ bodies within the confines of the camera frame, imposing stasis on a moment that in the theatre is unbounded and alive with possibility. While the actors might not end up running across the stage at a moment’s notice, or falling suddenly and dramatically to the ground, there is still a sense in the theatre that they could. Very tight camera shots foreclose this possibility, imposing the stable mise-en-scène of the camera into the wider and indeed wilder stage-scape. In such shots the face to reigns supreme, and while I like faces, I also like other things too.

While the Richard II recording had its fair share of close ups, frequently moving to this mode when the dialogue focused in on two characters (for instance, the goodbyes Gaunt and Bolingbroke exchange in Act 1 scene 3 after Richard banishes his cousin), the directors weren’t afraid to leave this mode and offer what I would describe as a more open, contingent, unpredictable – in a word, theatrical – point of view. Wide and mid-shots of the stage and characters were sensitively mixed with tighter close ups, creating a roving and fluid perspective that loosened its grip on the viewer’s gaze and recognised the fact that there’s more than one best seat or best perspective in any theatrical house. Most effective and exciting for me were the long tracking shots that started with a tight focus on a particular part of the stage-space and then slowly opened up to move across and through the wider scenic tableau. An example was Act 4 scene 1, when the Bishop of Carlisle challenges Bolingbroke’s assumption of the throne – starting with a tightly cropped shot of the Bishop and Bolingbroke towards the back of the stage space expressing their mutual displeasure with one another, the camera then pulled away to gradually reveal and weave through the half dozen other characters dotted across the stage and taking in this very public moment. Through this visual choreography we were able to focus in on two of the scene’s most central characters, but not at the expense of locking our view and erasing everyone else.

Alongside what I am suggesting are more theatrical modes of engagement were also a few strikingly cinematic choices. The broadcast opened with an aerial shot of the Duchess slumped over her husband’s coffin, which then pulled away to show the wider stage space, and towards the end of the play the York family appeared at a distance in a long shot that transitioned into a slow, sweeping zoom into the scene. Perhaps most noticeable of all was the camera work offered during and after Richard’s capitulation to Bolingbroke’s demands in Act 3 scene 3. Here Doran’s production inserted a tender exchange between Richard and Aumerle that ended with a passionate kiss – arguably the most striking directorial choice in an otherwise rather stately and textually conservative production. In the in-person theatrical space we watched this moment between the two men unfold from their location on an elevated balcony, which crossed the stage’s proscenium arch; on film we saw it in close up, a framing that served to enhance the extreme intimacy of this illicit, and ultimately tragic, expression of love. With both men seated, the blocking itself dictated a stillness that the camera frame reiterated rather than imposed, further marking this moment as the true crux of Doran’s reading of the play. At the end of the scene, after Richard descended from the balcony to submit himself to Bolingbroke and follow him to London, the camera slowly tracked back up to the now-empty scene of the kiss, visually imprinting its significance once again in our minds through this focused direction of our gaze.

While the points above don’t account for all the scattered thoughts and impressions I had about the cinema experience of Richard II, they pretty much cover the most salient, and significant points. There were, of course, a few minor glitches on the evening, including very live, echoey sound in the first scene and a half of the broadcast, and a couple of unfortunate relays of the stage work, such as a lost joke between Richard and the Queen when he commanded her to ‘Be merry’ as he departed for Ireland, and more significantly Northumberland’s announcement of Gaunt’s death from behind a rather sizeable chair. I had expected more moments in which the scale of acting for a live audience in a large theatre would feel awkward or overblown within a close camera frame, but aside from Green’s slightly over-ample stage blood and the Duchess of Gloucester’s very evacuative tears, there was little that seemed outsized on film.

It was, all in all, a very thoughtful and responsive interpretation of the in-person stage performance I had seen the day before, and judging from a few comments on Twitter perhaps even a preferable version of it (one example – ‘#RSCRichardII live @cineworld tonight. Even better than when I saw it in Stratford bizarrely. Tennant mesmerising.’) While the stubbornly subjective question of ‘better’ will always depend on personal taste and context, the question of how audiences respond en masse to this new era of widespread theatre broadcasting – both in terms of general feedback and in terms of ticket sales – is one that will be of serious interest to theatres, arts programmers, funding bodies, and critics alike. It is, I think, the question with regards to where theatre-going and as a consequence theatre-making are headed in the coming years.

Metatheatre indeed. RII at the Renoir Cinema.
Metatheatre indeed. Richard II at the Renoir Cinema.