Being there

On September 4, 2014, in Cinemas, Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan

verona

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, production photo from www.rsc.org.uk

Until now, I’d not been to one of the live video broadcasts into cinemas of theatre productions which have spread so rapidly since the New York Metropolitan Opera introduced them in late 2006. In part this was me being slow off the mark, in part it was apprehension at what I was buying into. Simply, it didn’t feel like I would be buying into the real thing. I am no advocate of the liveness of theatre above life shown through a screen: there’s a snobbishness and sentimentality in that line of argument that I really dislike. But beyond the obvious convenience of seeing a stage production that one might probably not be able to see otherwise, I just wasn’t sure what I would be purchasing. In short, would I be getting value for money?

I overcame such caution last night when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, broadcast as part of its RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series into cinemas up and down the land, including for my benefit the Woodville Halls Theatre in Gravesend.

The play is one of the Shakespeare’s earliest – perhaps his first – and is generally considered a weak attempt at the romantic comedy style he would make his own with Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night et al. It is deeply beholden to the arid traditions of courtly romance and betrays the inexperience of the young writer through its several faults of technical construction. But the production has been showered with praise – amazingly, it is the first RSC full production of the play in forty-five years – and it’s a play that I had never seen performed. So it was that I turned up at the Woodville, intrigued and expectant. I wanted to see the production, and I needed to experience the phenomenon. I’ve started collecting examples of ‘streamed theatre‘ on my Picturegoing site, and I’ve been intrigued by how many bloggers who write about such shows review them as theatre, understanding themselves to be there, not seeing the screen as screen at all (unless technical glitches distract their attention). What would I see?

There were around forty of us, huddled for the most part in the centre of the auditorium. The live broadcast was preceded by a rotating slide show that introduced the production and cast, and advertised the RSC, serving therefore as a form of programme (I thought how useful such a projection could be before the show in an actual theatre, except that it would affect the sales of programmes). We were also given shots of the audience taking to their seats at Stratford-upon-Avon. They looked like us and we looked like them: a fair representation of grey-haired middle England. I thought what a shame there could not be a way for those in Stratford to see us, much as we were seeing them. They would gain a greater sense of the larger audience to which this production was now playing.

An enthusiastic woman called Suzy Klein sat down at a table on the stage and introduced the play to us, while the actors milled about in an approximation of a Verona café. Suzy said she hoped we would tweet about the experience. None of those seated at the Woodville looked like they had ever tweeted in their life, and in any case we had been told to turn off our mobile phones and of course we had all obeyed (if someone had brought in a tablet with them I didn’t see it). Interactivity was for others – we just wanted to see the show.

And so the show began. It is a terrific production which breathes new life into the play. It is bright, witty, passionate and engaging. A talented young cast make every line reasonable, sailing confidently over the play’s odder constructions (such as the rapid reconciliation with the selfish Proteus at the play’s conclusion) and clearly enjoying themselves. One ends up admiring Shakespeare’s early sense of dramatic construction. It’s a play and a production that you would happily recommend to anyone.

Trailer for The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I was particularly interested in how it was filmed. This was very pleasing. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieving between capturing the action as presented on a stage, and selecting shots calculated to satisfy the cinematic (or televisual) eye. At one end of the spectrum you get the camera parked in the stalls recording the literal actuality. At the other end you get those video production where close shots have been interpolated to turn the show into something designed with the camera first in mind and the theatre and its audience an unwanted distraction. The filmmaker needs to find a halfway house, true to both camera and stage.

This the RSC Live production did very well. There was judicious use of crane shots, gently swooping over the action; lateral camera movements which took in the audience’s heads so we were always reminded that we were in a theatre, sharp cutting between protagonists as they debated with one another, showing much careful planning of camera positions; and the occasional misalignment of actors in the frame to prove that this was live and that actors do not always stand where the film producer hopes that they will stand. I was especially impressed by some of the smooth transitions from scene to scene, particularly the cut between Acts 3 and 4, from Julia exiting with Sylvia’s picture to Eglamour dressed as a monk, both filmed from above. There were close shots, but not close-ups – we were never taken imaginatively out of the space that is the theatre. The filming optimised the experience.

I wasn’t so sure of the sound. Partly, one is at the mercy of the digital projection facilities of the participating cinema, but to my eye the words were ever so slightly out of synch with the visuals (so one saw someone closing their mouth to end a speech a split second after we heard the final word being spoken). More troubling, at least initially, was the sound mixing. There was a curious lack of perspective, as though audio and visually had been recorded separately and laid together for the broadcast. It’s hard to describe, but I felt that the spoken words didn’t belong to the stage, that there weren’t projected out but instead sounded as though they were confined with a small space. Of course, this may be an outcome of the radio miking in theatres which is designed for clarity and intimacy, but I found it odd at first. As the production went on, either the sound effect settled down or I became used to it, because eventually I ceased to be bothered by it.

There was an interval, with ten minutes of quiet in which we saw footage of people at Stratford vacating their seats, followed with ten minutes of promotional stuff (including a mock silent film trailer for Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won – which they have decided is the alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing). Suzy told us how great the music was and how she thought buying the soundtrack CD would be a great idea, and encouraged us all to tweet once more. We ignored her.

There have been reports of these ‘live theatre’ events of the cinema audience clapping alongside the theatre audience at the end of the show. Not in Gravesend they didn’t. We sat there in silence, then filed out during the credits. All seemed to have liked it, though, to judge from the exit chatter, with promises made to the staff that we would be coming back for other such shows.

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The Woodville

I will certainly be coming back, because I enjoyed it immensely. One can look at it as extension of presence in the theatre, or as something changed radically by being on a screen, with gradations of change in between those poles, according to the viewer. Has any Baudrillardian theorised as yet on broadcast theatre as simulacra or simulation of live experience? It is subject ripe for applying Baudrillard’s idea of the precession of simulacra, where the copy takes over the meaning of its referent, ultimately destroying the meaning of the original. But different folks will see different things. When I first got there, an attendant asked me what I had come to see. I said I was going to the cinema. He said there was no cinema that evening, instead they had ‘a show’. It was either, and both.

One thing bothered me, however. Just how ‘live’ was it? Of course the production was broadcast live and every action that we saw was occurring at precisely the same moment as it was in Stratford-upon-Avon. But it didn’t feel live to me, or rather the liveness didn’t matter. I expected to feel a particular frisson at being there, however remotely, and of course the liveness is a major part of what is being sold to us as an attraction. But the frisson didn’t happen. Had it been a show from the day before I don’t see how the experience would have been truly different. Had it been from six months ago then perhaps the feeling might change, as initiatives like RSC Live and NT Live advertise repeat screenings as ‘encores’, with (I assume) marginally lower prices. But the difference between live and close to live seems a fine one.

There’s an interesting parallel with football, where live games may be shown on a Saturday afternoon on Sky, and then the highlights on Match of the Day in the evening, and in both cases there is the feeling of being there. If you repeat either broadcasts later in the week, or still later than that, then the liveness has gone, as actuality turns into history.

Also, football is a business where primary revenues have moved from the turnstile to the screen, and that is what is now happening to theatre. The RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September was seen by around 1,000 people in the theatre. Broadcast to some 275 cinemas in the UK, it will have been seen by a remote audience of at least 11,000 (if the Gravesend turnout is anything to go by) and probably nearer 20,000, and that’s not counting worldwide screenings (they reached Argentina, Australia, Russia, Spain and the USA) encore screenings and any subsequent DVD sales. The National Theatre’s more established NT Live reaches 600 venues, had found a worldwide audience of 1,275,000 by the time of its 2013-13 annual report, and for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time it got a UK audience of 42,000 and worldwide audience of 72,000, while the 43,000 for The Last of the Haussmans got the screening into the UK’s weekly box office cinema chart (at no. 8).

This is going to have a huge effect on the economics of theatre. Productions will be selected and made with the camera in mind, star actors will be attracted for what may be shorter runs, because the residual revenues will be greater. The liveness of theatre will be an essential part of what is being sold to us, and in that the audience attending the theatre will play their part, just as the football crowd lets us know that the game is real. But the power will lie with the few who came to the Woodville, not the many who filled the theatre at Stratford. We were the ones who were really there.

Links:

  • Details of the production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are on the RSC site. The director was Simon Godwin; the cast included Mark Arends (Proteus), Pearl Chanda (Julia), Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Michael Marcus (Valentine)
  • Information on Verona and other RSC broadcasts (live and encore) is on the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon site
  • Peter Kirwan has a review of the 3 September screening at his excellent Bardathon blog – he reviews it as theatre, with some reference to presentation (the introduction, camera placement) and a complaint about sound distortion (a fault of his local screening at the Nottingham Broadway).
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