Tag Archives: Royal Shakespeare Company

Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!

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Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of academic research. It was as part of this scheme that I had the opportunity to carry out research for Erin Sullivan, specifically focusing on the applications of Shakespeare in social media.

The first two weeks of my research focused on two major social media-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays: Such Tweet Sorrow (2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013). Co-produced by the RSC, these adaptations attempted to push the limits of theatrical performance, aiming to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider public. One of the unique aspects of the social media performances were their ability to occur in real time. Such Tweet Sorrow occurred continuously over five weeks. However, due to the length of the project and the vast amount of content which was produced as a consequence, it was sometimes difficult to follow. This challenge was combatted in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as it only ran for seventy-two hours.  Over the course of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, 3,000 pieces of original content were released by over 30 original characters. This created a diversity of narrative and effectively established a very complete world of auxiliary characters. The vast amount of content showcases the wide range of creative abilities as well as the ingenuity which Shakespeare has inspired. In both of these performances the RSC achieve the aim of making Shakespeare accessible. Both performances serve to bring the play quite literally into the hands of their audiences, enabling them to interact and alter the performances in a way which is impossible on stage.

The second aspect of my research focused on audience-created responses. These responses occupy a wide a range of forms, such as memes and gifs on Tumblr, tweets from ‘Shakespeare’ or community based Twitter pages, and whole narratives in the form of fan fiction. All of these online communities attract similar audiences: young adults and teenagers with a vague interest in Shakespeare and who are active online participants. Tumblr is a primarily visual site, with the most circulated images being pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in his performance of Hamlet or Richard III, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and David Tennant as Hamlet or Richard II. These photos (excluding Tom Hiddleston as Henry V) were accessed through the National Theatre live performances, a system which enables select performances to be broadcast by a massive audience. The sharing of the photographs and gifs further increases the audiences for these performances (even if they have not seen the live piece) as the images serve to illustrate the original text in the context of these specific adaptations. However, only those who know the original text can appreciate the images in this way.

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Another element I researched with regards to audience-created responses to Shakespeare was fan fiction. Fan fiction is an interesting and creative way for audiences to respond to the narratives which interest them. It provides a way for audiences to develop a community based around similar interests whilst also offering an extremely versatile creative outlet. The inclusion of ‘comments’ and ‘kudos’ or ‘reviews’ and ‘favourites’, depending on which site, enables interaction between fan fiction author and reader, the opportunity to share criticism and to develop a community of like-minded individuals. Writing in a modern day setting, with the accompanying modern language, proved to be extremely popular on the creative front. There is a trend that these ‘modernisations’ tend to be based upon the plays which revolve around younger characters, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This could be because their situations are the most romantic or that they hold a level of relatability for the authors (teenagers suffering with love, anger, depression etc.). Prequels and sequels also heavily feature in the works, and these are possibly the works that are the most connected to Shakespeare, with some painstakingly obeying Shakespeare’s original writing style, featuring iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes and verse.

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Another form of audience-created responses are visual adaptations of Shakespeare. Web series hold a much broader appeal as they follow a linear narrative which aids understanding for those unfamiliar with the original play. By reimagining the original scripts in the vernacular the plots are made easier to follow and the occasional yet seamless integration of Shakespeare’s original lines ensures that the connection to the original text is maintained and honoured, whilst also not being inaccessible. Due to the open platform which is YouTube, levels of professionalism varied from the heavily produced and funded Titus and Dronicus to the completely amateur A Document in Madness. As with all modern adaptations, and internet adaptions, the plots are altered. In the case of Monty and Jules, the adoption of a university setting means that the feud is between two rival fraternities as opposed to the families. In this case the adaptation of the plot to the 21st century setting is exceptionally well done. The avoidance of murder and suicide was especially well executed as they still communicated the consequences of what in the play are the murder and suicides but managed to avoid the involvement of the police or similar legal authorities, something which often impedes believability of modernisation of Shakespeare’s plays. The modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, especially that on the internet platform, is definitely well suited to the video form – especially the mix of vlog style and video calling used Monty and Jules – as it communicates an intimacy and believability which is often lost when productions are attempted on other online platforms.

Overall, Shakespeare and the digital world appears to be based around accessibility and community. Audiences are engaged and interacted with in ways that are impossible on a traditional stage. The online world gives everyone’s voice a chance to be heard and way for their own creativity to be displayed.

Guest post by Holly Reaney, BA English (University of Birmingham).

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Othello @The RSC, stage and screen

Some thoughts on the RSC’s Othello, which I was able to see on both stage and screen this summer. In each case I caught the production at an extreme end of its run, seeing it live on stage in its early weeks (still officially in previews, I think), and live in the cinema the night before it closed. It’s worth mentioning then that some of the observations below might have as much to do with how a production evolves over time as to how it changes across media. But caveats aside, I’d like to start with a few of the ideas that stuck out for me after seeing the production in June, and then turn to the further thoughts I had after seeing it at the end of August at the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse.

This production deals with race in a more interesting, complex, and meaningful way that most. It’s not just that it features a black Iago — though that of course is important. Out of a cast of 18, I counted at least 6 actors of color, a major institutional achievement in its own right (same goes for the director Iqbal Khan, and for the 6 female actors). In this far more diverse company than is typically seen on big national stages, Othello becomes not a lone black man in a sea of whiteness, but one citizen among many in a racially and culturally heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world. This doesn’t mean that issues of race disappear — far from it. Instead, it challenges us to think about how racial dynamics work when they can’t be reduced to easy binaries (black/white). It’s no mistake, I think, that the production’s most racially charged scene doesn’t actually focus on Othello, but rather is the party in Cyprus, where what seems like harmonious celebration soon descends into aggression and social conflict.

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The women are really good. And I don’t mean this as faint praise, particularly when it comes to Desdemona. She is so easily an utterly naive, docile, submissive, and subservient wife — how can this be avoided in performance and her character made into someone modern audiences can feel more than perfunctory pity for? Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is lively, impetuous, child-like, and perhaps even childish. She is naive, but with a palpably fierce sense of loyalty and justice. She’s not okay with what’s going on with Othello, she just really doesn’t get it until the end. Emilia on the other hand tends to give actors more to get stuck into, and Ayesha Dharker brings out the complexity and subtlety in her part. One of the many strengths of her portrayal is the vulnerability she brings to the role; Emilia can easily become the cynical, worldly wise counterpart to Desdemona’s foolish waif, but here she is also complicated by her own insecurities and shaped by a moving tenderness.


Othello is not blameless before Iago gets to him, and military life is certainly not noble.
The most obvious way we understand this is through the extra-textual torture scene inserted after the party scene and before Desdemona starts her ill-fated attempts to get Cassio re-instated in his post. To be a part of military culture, this production suggests, is to be a part of brutal and even inhumane campaigns against other countries, cultures, and their people. And if we might be tempted to think that Othello is merely the distant manager of a rouge troop, we are soon corrected by his own swift and decisive turn to torture when Iago starts suggesting to him that Desdemona is not all that she seems.

Hugh Quarshie’s performance as Othello is muted and even under-powered. There is a still core at the centre of Quarshie’s Othello that makes him imposing, compelling, but also at times inscrutable. His is a quiet and contained Othello, obviously enraged by his situation (or so the torture of Iago would suggest) but also strangely affectless. No wonder Desdemona is confused. For me this got worse as the production went on, and made the second half particularly difficult to grasp. The final scene was among the flattest I’ve seen, with Othello’s ‘It is the cause, my soul’ speech unfolding a bit too much like a to-do list. Though other exchanges in the scene did suggest more passion and conviction, they never grew into something greater, and the end effect for me was a disappointing woodenness. Over the course of his career, Quarshie has been famously outspoken about how the typical understanding of Othello’s emotional journey is an inherently racist one. But re-reading that journey caused its own problems in terms of clarity and power of character, leaving me underwhelmed as I left the theatre.

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So, with all this in mind, what did I notice, rethink, or experience differently on a second viewing, this time from my seat in the cinema?

First, and most importantly, the camera finds nuance where the stage does not. Quarshie’s Othello was still oddly contained when viewed through the camera lens, but certain choices about his character’s emotional arc did become clearer. What I saw in his Othello this go round was an ample dose of Hamlet — his lurching from stillness to rage and back again looked more cerebral deliberation and manipulation than wooden inscrutability. When he slapped Desdemona, calling her ‘that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello’, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Hamlet and Ophelia’s nunnery scene. Disgust and righteousness were the top notes, hurt and loss the undertones; misogyny and misanthropy were present in equal measure. In the final scene, no nervous chuckles could be heard, and the focus of the camera helped intensify and structure the dialogue that I had previously found flat and strained. To my surprise, the lines that popped out for me more than ever before were Othello’s comments on the handkerchief, and the difference between murder and sacrifice:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.

What he’s talking about here is emotion, and the way it colours his actions — something I only realize now from reading Frederika Bain’s chapter on affect and execution in the collection on emotion that Richard Meek and I brought out this year. In it Frederika shows how executions were supposed to be accompanied by minimal to no affect — these killings are just and deserved, and so they are governed by reason rather than passion. Murders, on the other hand, were marked by their lack of emotional restraint, with the unbridled feeling that accompanied them actually serving as a sign of their criminality. This is of course a historical approach to the issue, but it struck me as strangely appropriate in thinking about Quarshie’s performance. Containing emotion becomes a way of consolidating Othello’s political, social, and intellectual power; he is not a gull, or passion’s slave, but rather a deliberate and righteous judge. The problem that remained for me, however, is that I don’t believe that reason and passion are opposing forces, and I don’t think Shakespeare did either. While the camera helped me find nuance in Quarshie’s performance, I still felt that by denying Othello fuller emotional expression he also denied him his full power and complexity.

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Second, the camera can make assertions in places where the stage simply suggests. There are several examples I could talk about here, but let’s just go with two. In the staged version, the added torture scene doesn’t directly involve Othello, but he is certainly implicated: first and foremost by being the leader of these men, second by shuffling around the edges of the stage while the scene is going on, and third by initiating torture himself in a later scene. In the filmed version, his complicity and command are made much clearer — at the end of the sequence we get a framed shot of Othello looking through papers in a file (the tortured prisoner’s?), a choice that specifically directs the political force and affective discomfort of this interpolated scene towards this one man. Likewise, at the very end of the production, we close with a final shot of Iago, down on his knees, laughing diabolically as the lights go out. His laughter continues to reverberate in the darkness until the lights come up and the applause begins. I have no memory of this choice from the night I saw it on stage, which makes me wonder if it simply wasn’t part of the production at that early stage. But even if that is the case, its importance is deliberately underscored here, as is Othello’s participation in a kind of warfare that is far from dolce et decorum.

Finally, I really like those floating crane shots. Basically, every time they appear in the film, there’s a comment in my notebook saying something like ‘really nice shot!’, or ‘beautifully filmed!’. Even when this is the torture scene, or Othello manhandling Emilia, or indeed the Willow song. Give me a sustained wide shot, and I’m happy. Add some visual wonder to it, and I’m positively elated. Like the stadium shot in sports, these views let me see what’s going on and anticipate action before it actually occurs. But having read Barker’s book this summer, I’m also aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. Am I over-prizing the long shot, and the kind of perspective it allows? How many different ways are there to see, and feel, a play?

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:

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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.)

Technology and the Book

In my last post I mentioned the fact that an essay of mine has recently been published in Shakespeare and the Digital World, a new book edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan for Cambridge University Press. I received my contributor copies in the mail last week, and I’ve been enjoying flipping through the pages and seeing what kinds of issues come up in the other chapters. The book is divided into four sections – research, teaching, publication, performance – and rather than wait until I’ve finished the entire thing, which might take awhile given all the other stuff that is (quite literally) on my desk, I thought I’d blog about the book section-by-section as I work my way through it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first book to try to take stock of how digital knowledge, practice, and life is shaping the way in which academics of all varieties are working with Shakespeare today, and I think and hope it will be of interest to quite a lot of people in the field.

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But before jumping straight into the four sections, I wanted to reflect a bit on Carson and Kirwan’s introduction, which invites us to think about the nature of the book itself. I suppose some people might question whether or not a critical discussion about digital transformation should really take place in a physical book like the one photographed above, but I think Carson and Kirwan are right that ‘What a book can do well, and has always done well, is to provide an extended argument on a topic through a structured approach that leads the reader through it in manageable stages.’ (p. 2) The idea gave me pause; it is, on the face of it, an obvious statement, but it manages to articulate something clearly and succinctly that we very often take for granted – that a book is a discursive form, and that switching to other kinds of publication platforms isn’t just a change in delivery format, it is a change in discourse and argumentation themselves.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but the power of the book as a form hit me last year when we published A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, much of which already existed online as a collaborative blog (www.yearofshakespeare.com). The aim of the website and book was to document and respond to each of the more than 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were put on in 2012 as part of the UK’s Olympic celebrations. While the website finished around November 2012, the book came out in April 2013, and I was surprised by how publishing the essays as a book really did give them a new identity and life. Of course, somewhat predictably, it meant that certain people now recognized its contents as research – authorized by an academic press, materialized on a physical page, it gained new status for some as legitimate knowledge. But this wasn’t all the book did for the project. First, and very simply, the physical book reached readers that the website didn’t, and vice versa. I suppose it wasn’t unlike touring a theatre production to different audiences, or even recording it and sending people the DVD. By putting the contents onto different kinds of stages, a wider cross-section of audiences knew about it.

Year of Shakespeare: the website

Second, and even more significantly, the book influenced the fundamental nature of the project, even if most of the words themselves did not change. While the website contained about 130 essays, hundreds of user comments, dozens of audio interviews with audience members, and as much multimedia material as we could find, the book contained one essay for each of the 74 productions in the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, topped and tailed with new material from me and my two co-editors. Most of the production essays had already appeared on the blog (in fact, they’re still there), but they had not appeared as a sequence that could be worked through step by step, and they certainly hadn’t appeared as a collection that you could hold, measure, and visualize as an object (i.e. object-ively?).

Year of Shakespeare: the book

As a book the size and scope of the project is more easily grasped – even if, ironically, the book is a more select version of the collaborative website. I don’t think some people realized that the project really did cover all of the festival until they could see it together in material form. There is also a sense of linear progression and narrative sequence in a book, even if that sequence is at times arbitrary (we ended up going with alphabetical order by Shakespeare play, meaning that people can read about three Romeo and Juliets at once, but also that that the reason things start with All’s Well and finish with The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with the live, lived experience of the 2012 festival itself). What I suppose is most significant about all this is not what the book does to the essays themselves, but rather what it does for our apprehension of them. It creates a story out of them that we can follow, even if we know that story is largely imposed. The website on the other hand creates a landscape out of them that we are free to explore, but that we can also get easily lost in.

The final thing that’s worth mentioning is that, at least for our project, the physical book has proven more durable than the digital website. While the book took longer to generate, once it arrived it hasn’t changed. The website on the other hand was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with two PhD students to archive the site for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives and collections (the World Shakespeare Festival was produced by the RSC). Led by specialists at the SBT, our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly. Call it naivety, but I didn’t fully appreciate how present a blog could be in the moment, but how ephemeral it might prove a few years into the future.

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Year of Shakespeare: the archive

The question for me, then, is the extent to which these differences are intrinsic and the extent to which they will fade with time. I have no doubt, for instance, that a website could be preserved just as well as a book by someone who was more diligent, and more technically skilled, than me. But what about the academic status of digital publishing, or the potentially divided audiences for digital and analogue publishing platforms? Will these distinctions become less visible with every year? Most significantly, what about the way digital and analogue forms and formats shape our ability to understand and interpret the contents they hold? If this changes too, then it may very well be us, as psychological and social entities, that are the main things being changed.

So — many thoughts, and all within reading of the first 7 pages of Carson and Kirwan’s introduction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 250 hold, and so I move into part one of its sequenced, structured conversation, flipping its physical pages as I go.

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.

Backstage tumbling

This week the RSC announced the launch of its #rehearsalcam across Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, the promise being that we can get glimpses of the theatre’s work backstage through occasional posts from actors, stage managers, and others as they bring a show to life. The project at the moment specifically focuses on  Henry IV, but given the fact that the social media feeds are more generally titled ‘RSC’ you get the feeling that this could be a trial of a more permanent initiative in the future.

There are five posts so far – one from actor Youssef Kerkour as he reads his script on what looks like London’s Circle line, a selfie from actor Robert Gilbert in his stage armor, a shot of a smartphone playing Morphine’s ‘Cure for Pain’, a 12-second clip of archery practice, and a group shot of someone (the assistant director?) addressing the cast.

What does it all add up to? I’m not sure yet, but I have enjoyed checking out the snippets they’ve shared — they remind me of the ‘actors’ bower’ video room from the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming project last summer, which offered on-the-go insights into the rehearsal process as the show came together over one short week. I’ll be interested to see what the cast does with the #rehearsalcam between now and the opening of the Henry shows (not far off now — 18 March!) and also if the RSC takes the idea forward with future productions, perhaps starting at the very beginning of the process (director brainstorming, casting, etc.) and following it all the way through to opening night.

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.