Back from study leave after a busy year of research and writing and now fully immersed in teaching again. One of several things I worked on in 2017 was a short guide to Stratford-upon-Avon and its theatres for a forthcoming book on theatre-going in the UK. Below is an abridged version of the entry, which will hopefully appear in print sometime later in the year.
So you’re interesting in going to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare? Plan for 1-2 days, depending on how much theatre you want to see, and prepare yourself for a charming little oddity of a town that tends to divide visitors. Some love its quietly bustling, timber-beamed way of life; others find it a rather twee imagining of ye olde England intended to snaffle as many tourist ducats as possible. Either way, it really is worth seeing, not least because it’s home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has put on an impressive year-round season of Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern classics, and new work since 1961 …
… The main reason you’re here, of course, is the theatre, and if the timing’s right then you may have as many as 3-4 productions to choose from during your stay. Like the National Theatre in London, the RSC has three stages and tends to use them for different kinds of productions. The main house is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, typically reserved for Shakespeare’s works and modern classics. It’s been here since 1932, when the building was constructed as part of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and until 2007 featured a large, proscenium-arch stage. It was in this space that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh titillated audiences with a chemistry-ridden Macbeth in 1955, John Barton and Peter Hall literally made history with The Wars of the Roses in 1963, and Peter Brook redefined what British Shakespeare could be with his ‘white box’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970.
Today, the interior space is entirely transformed: following a three-year, £112.8m redevelopment project, it now features a deeply thrust stage, around which a 1,040-person auditorium wraps on three tiers. Recent highlights in this redesigned space have included Rupert Goold’s Las Vegas-inspired The Merchant of Venice in 2011 and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s politically incisive The Comedy of Errors for the theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival the following year. The good seats in the RST really are special, with the space achieving an intimacy that is rare on big, main stages, but watch out for the poor views that come with many of the cheaper seats. In some cases it’s better to go with the discounted restricted view tickets than to chance the costlier seats next to them: the view from the latter may very well be nearly as limited, and for a pretty penny more.
For those interested in something a little different, and for the chance to see one of the most beautiful and dramaturgically powerful spaces in the UK, head next door to the smaller Swan Theatre, built in 1986 and seating 426 people. Though many Shakespeare plays have been staged here through the years—highlights include Greg Doran’s dazzling Anthony and Cleopatra, starring Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart in 2006, and Maria Aberg’s daringly inventive King John in 2012—these days this theatre tends to be reserved for lesser-known works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and new plays commissioned by the RSC …
… If after these delights you find yourself with time to spare, just down Waterside you’ll discover the Dirty Duck pub (officially ‘The Black Swan’), site of thespian drinking antics from the mid-twentieth century onwards. For tasty, late-night fare, you can’t beat Hussain’s Indian Cuisine on Chapel Street, rumoured favourite of Sir Ben Kingsley when he tread the boards in the 1970s. After this you’ll no doubt be stumbling back to your B&B for a cosy night’s sleep, or jogging across town to the station to catch the last train back to the big city.
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 Wyver, mixed 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.
The British Milton Seminar meets twice yearly to discuss papers on subjects relating to John Milton's life, work and times, together with his legacy and influence. The seminar is open to academic and academic-related staff and to postgraduate students.