Draft paper for PCA conference, San Antonio, Texas, 2011 - in collaboration with Dr Kelli Marshall, University of Toledo, Ohio, USA.
‘Live Theatre as Cinema’
The anticipation was palpable and akin to that felt in a theatre auditorium as people took their seats in the comfortable surroundings of the Little Cinema, Bath. The average age of the audience was post-retirement and seniors. The certification appeared on screen, allocating a 12A rating ‘as live’; which contradicted the information on the ticket that had stated ‘no certificate’. When the live feed began on screen we were drawn in with shots of the audience at the Donmar, an altogether younger crowd. But there were also embellishments for the cinema audience which began very early. It was as if there had to be something extra to mark the event, trailers and features for the remote audience and so we were entertained to a documentary about recent Donmar Warehouse productions, including comments from Jude Law and Gillian Anderson. As interesting as this was, the disadvantage was that we missed the actual first entrance of the actors. The feature abruptly cut to show actors already on stage engaged in the dialogue for the first scene.
So there is no denying that compromises were made. However, the perspective offered to the cinema audience was privileged. The camera position gave front row views from the stalls, and also the feeling of being front row of the upper circle, as well having an almost ‘on-stage’ point of view at times. Proximity to the actors then was everything. There was an extreme, intimate focus in some scenes that offered an intrusive nearness to the live experience. The actors’ every breath was discernible and the physical exertion of the performance was clear. Despite having missed the first entrance of Kent and Gloucester all in all the flow of the performance was unimpeded. They were already into their first exchange when we joined them and this abrupt beginning also signalled some issues with the acoustics. They were slightly harsh and strident in places; and it soon became clear that all of the principals at least wore radio mics. There was some crackling and problems with pitch when some of the actors increased their projection. The ones who came off best were Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester. Each of these performers, older male actors, with voices in the lower register demonstrated the most suitable tone and adaptation to this cross-over format of live theatre into cinema. It seemed that the problems with the sound levels had been sorted by Edmund’s first soliloquy. At this point the question of the responses in the cinema audience; their participation in the live event, was raised. The Donmar audience laughed at certain points of the speech. The cinema audience chuckled, nervously it seemed, and this was to be the overall tone of the responses throughout. There was a certain deference in the mood of their responses when it came to laughter and later on applause. To clap or not to clap was an issue. The compromise that was reached was a sort of half-hearted ripple amongst some of the audience members that soon dissipated.
The sound was, it turned out, the least of the technical difficulties encountered. The live feed failed after the first scene with Edgar and Gloucester in the second half and just as Jacobi entered for his first ‘mad’ scene. This fifteen/twenty minute interruption was met with a more uninhibited groan from the cinema audience, in an ‘I told you so’ manner (more used as we are to complaining than offering accolades!). Thus far they felt it had been almost too good to be true and the inevitable technical hitch had to happen. However, the actors recommenced with ease. This highlighted the fact that theatre is about ‘liveness’ and tension, with a detectable sense of risk-taking but also the reassurance of the control that the actors have over the material. Commanding performance takes on a new meaning in this context. In terms of framing and the aspect of the camera angles there were times when they seemed quite cautious and other times when they gave an emphasis and a quality to the scene that was unique to this experience. For example, Lear’s confrontation with Goneril after he insults her servant and then curses her was one scene that came across superbly well. The framing when he bore down on her, although keeping his distance, showed the tension in Jacobi’s body. Gina McKee as Goneril was not fully in view, but when she turned after his tirade had finished, she had tears down her cheeks. This was electrifying and an element of a cinematically streamed live performance that I think could not have been repeated in any other context. The ‘Blow winds’ speech began in a stage whisper, which was – I think – a concession on the part of such a skilled, experienced actor as Jacobi, to the sound quality of the acoustic feed. It built to a brilliant crescendo and the ‘unaccommodated man’ speech following was set within an excellent tableau. Also, Kent (who had a great Midlands twang to his accent that suited his language extremely well) when he is placed in the stocks, was filmed using a panning shot that then came in for a close-up as his speech intensified.
One of the things that I was concerned about was how the action towards the play’s climax would be handled. The series of rapid, physical scenes as the warfare escalates, contrast with the quieter, tragic scenes between Lear and Cordelia. The latter scenes need to offer a calm centre to the action wherein the philosophical meaning of the tragedy is concluded, whilst the madness increases and builds around them. The configuration of the shots and framing did not cause this element to slide, fortunately, and there were genuine tears shed around me at Lear’s recognition of Cordelia and at his entrance with her lifeless body. Although, the camera is still ruthless and unforgiving, and in Pippa Bennet-Warner’s case, as Cordelia, and Jacobi as the dead Lear slumped next to her – we could still detect (very laboured) breathing! It brought home just what an exertion such performance is and the stamina and vigour needed to carry it out, let alone to have to repeat scenes due to a failed satellite link.