Friday 31 January 2014

The Joy of Live(stream) Theatre

I love live theatre. I grew up going every summer to the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario and there are still certain things just the memory of which will send a shiver down my spine.  The sound of the gong that would mark the start of the play on that curtainless apron stage.  The rustle of a costume as an actor made their entrance down an aisle (oh, how I’d clamour to my parents to make sure that we got one of those precious aisle seats!) Maggie Smith holding the audience in the palm of her hand as Cleopatra...

Recently, however, there is no denying I have become a major fan of live streaming – the technology that allows a theatre performance to be broadcast live to cinemas around the country, or even around the world, giving you front row seats at a fraction of the current cost of tickets to the theatre.

In the last couple of months, I have been to two such live-streams:  David Tennant’s Richard II at the RSC, directed by Greg Doran, and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke. Both these performances were sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale, so my chances of seeing either of them in the theatres was virtually nil.

Richard II

If you have never been to a live-stream, you might imagine that what you see is just the view from a fixed-point camera, perhaps from the middle of the dress circle.  But it’s far more sophisticated than that.  Somehow, without interfering with the live performance, they position cameras at multiple angles, and take you, at times, right in close  to the actors’ faces, so that you catch details of the performance you wouldn’t see unless you had front row seats – and perhaps no even then.

Both Richard II and Coriolanus suffer from the fact that their central characters are not particularly easy to like. Tennant’s Richard II reeled in the audience’s sympathies over the course of the play, moving from an effete arrogance born of his certainty in his divine right to rule, to a resigned humility as he accepts his fate.

One of the pleasures of a live-stream is that you are often treated to little interviews with the cast and crew before the performance and in the interval. In this case, before the play began, we heard an interview with the director, Gregory Doran, who described Tennant as  “constitutionally incapable of not making a line sound like modern English,” – gift that allows him to draw out some of the bitter humour Richard finds in his own downfall.

Richard II also marks the first return to the stage of Jean Lapotaire since the brain haemorrhage she suffered in 2000, in the small but significant role as the widow to the murdered Gloucester.

We also heard the designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, talk about going back to an old technology to create a very modern-seeming effect.  Curtains made of strings of fine glass beads (‘a bit like the chain on your sink plug’) were hung in graduated layers through the depth of the stage. Onto this were projected images – like the nave of the cathedral in the opening scene – creating an illusion of depth.  And because the curtains were semi-transparent, actors could move behind and between them, accentuating the effect.


In contrast to the grandeur of the Richard II set, the live-stream of Coriolanus came from the tiny Donmar Warehouse  - a converted banana ripening shed in London’s Covent Garden. The stage is a simple square, surrounded on three sides by banks of seats, and this stark simplicity was used to conjure the idea of a Roman arena.  The only set dressing was graffiti projected onto the back wall and the only props a ladder and a few chairs.

Tom Hiddleston is young and athletic, and he brings a different dynamic to the play than the older actors who are typically cast. (As Emma Freud asked in her interview of the director, Josie Rourke, during the interval, “MTV named Tom Hiddleston as the sexiest man on the planet – so why  exactly did you cast him as Coriolanus…?”)  And they are not averse to making the most of  that athleticism – sending him  scrambling up ladders at the siege of Corioles where he earns his name and afterwards having him stand, half-naked, as he showers blood from his body.

Deborah Findlay is impressive as Volumnia – surely one of the strongest female roles in any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But the revelation of this production, for me, was Mark Gatiss as Menenius. I love his Mycroft, but I have been in two minds about some of the other things I have seen him in.  but here he displayed the same gift as Tennant – making every word seem perfectly understandable and creating a character the audience could relate to as if this were contemporary drama.

The other piece of surprise casting was Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Borgen’s Katrine Fønsmark) as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia. It is a part with very few speaking lines and you might think she was wasted on it (especially as her English appears flawless and almost unaccented). But one of the things I have noticed about Scandanavian television actors is that that are often expected to express a great deal without using any words at all.  Because of the  way the play was staged, Virgilia is on view to the audience almost the whole time, and especially for this live-cast, where the camera often comes in very close to the actors’ faces, Sørensen has great scope to express all  the fear, anger and grief of a soldier’s wife.

Coriolanus is  the least known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.  Unlike, say, Hamlet or Julius Caesar, much of the audience will come to it not knowing the story – and most of all, not knowing the ending.  Josie Rourke and her cast would like to keep it that way, so I won’t spoil it for you. Sufficeth to say that it made full use of Hiddleston’s athleticism, and that even filtered through  a screen, it was shocking.

Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear  from the National Theatre will be live –streamed on 1st May. I’m buying my tickets now.

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