Tag Archives: Richard II

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.

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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.

photo

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 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.