Gods, monsters

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Gods, monsters’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 28 March 2011, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/gods-monsters/

Text: To the Curzon in Mayfair for our second go at NT Live, where the National Theatre in London beams one of its productions, live, or as-live, around the whole world. This time: the much-discussed rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by writer Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle. Having already seen and been enthralled by Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet in this format in December, I can honestly say that this experience topped it. Not only was the production something to behold, but Hamlet was in the smaller Screen 2 at the Mayfair – we were moved there to accommodate the gala opening of some new film called The King’s Speech, which sank without a trace as far as I can tell. Anyway, Frankenstein was in the massive Screen 1. Much better. […]

Here’s the deal: people at the National Theatre on the South Bank watch actors do a play. People not at the theatre but in cinemas around the country, and the world, also watch actors do a play, at the same time. It’s a brilliant initiative, and even better if you’re a member of the Curzon and your tickets are discounted. But it’s particularly brilliant if you don’t live in London. I know because people were chattering excitedly about it on Twitter yesterday that it was showing at the mighty Duke Of York’s in Brighton, for instance. […] So, that’s the background. What about the play? After all, the play’s the thing.

Well, Frankingstein [sic] has been running for a month at the National and has been showered with positive notices. (Emma Freud, who stands in the NT auditorium and introduces the live link-up while confused theatregoers take their seats behind her and gawp vacantly into the camera, informed us that people are queuing up for tickets at 1am. I must admit, we booked our tickets for the Curzon showing before Christmas, sensing a sellout, which it was. Imagine a play that not only sells out the theatre it is in, but auditoriums it is not in.) You have to see these things for yourself sometimes. I am not an inveterate theatregoer, as we have established. I’ve seen some plays. Living in London is a bit of a privilege in that sense, but I’ve always felt a little bit ripped off when I’ve seen some men and ladies standing around talking to each other. If I’m going to pay West End prices, I want to see men and ladies dancing and singing. So, bear that in mind when I review this, as I am only comparing it to a handful of other plays I have seen. In many ways, I’m an easy lay, as I am just excited to be watching a play.

Danny Boyle is known as a filmmaker, but he started out in the theatre, as everyone will tell you. Well, that’s as may be, but he brought a cinematic eye and sense of occasion to Frankenstein. Beginning with the creature’s birth and following his infantile development – he walks! he talks! he reads Milton! – most of the first act is wordless. It’s just Benedict Cumberbatch (or Jonny Lee Miller – the pair alternate the main roles of Creature and Frank[en]stein) crawling and hobbling around the vast, bare stage, and grunting his way to coherence. Ironically, although this section is a tour de force, it’s made more cinematic when you watch it in the cinema, as you get close-ups and pans, and – something really special for the non-theatre audiences – aerial shots! So, what we saw in the Curzon is not what they saw at the National. They will say theirs was better, because they were in the same hall as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller off of the telly and the films, but I will say that ours was better. Funnily enough, the theatre crowd were still rudely talking when the play started. We were really quiet in the cinema. A huge bell sounds to signal the play has started, and yet, there they were, the big London theatre ponces, still muttering as Cumberbatch’s hand started feeling around inside the womb of his creation.

Unless you can afford to go twice in succession, you’re going to have to play the Cumberbatch/Lee Miller Lottery like the rest of us. Who will it be? It’s like a theatrical Kinder Egg – literally, as the creature bursts out of his membranous shell. Having experienced the full two hours, with no interval (Danny Boyle the bad boy rule-breaker!), I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I’m glad we got the Cumberbatch monster. It is a performance to leave your head spinning with its sheer physicality, nuanced grostequery [sic] and well balanced pathos/bathos. Lee Miller has less to do as the professor, less stagetime, and he had an audible sore throat last night, so heaven knows how he’ll cope as the grunting and squealing monster tonight. Vocalzone to the rescue, one hopes.

It’s actually scary, which is no mean feat for a stage play. The design and the lighting were spare and epic at the same time, with a stunning ceiling light made of hundreds of tiny individual bulbs that could undulate or burst into a retina-searing dazzle, and a revolving circular stage that occasionally gave birth to bits of scenery, and also coped with rain, snow and a roaring fire from below, not to mention a strip of what looked like actual grass that seemed to grow from nowhere. The design and the music – by Underworld – combined to create a fabulously Gothic setting, against which a fine cast could do their best with a script that at times was over-ripe, but on the whole managed to balance the philosophical and the portentous with bawdy and silly humour. You might find, say, the broad Scottish accents of the graverobbing crofter and his son a bit Fraser-from-Dad’s-Army, but it’s a period piece, and you have to take that onboard. There is no trendy modernisation here. It’s all industrial machinery and gaslight and rabbit stew cooked over a hearth. Naomie Harris off of the telly and the films, had a thankless part as Frankenstein’s intended, Elizabeth, until the grisly denouement, but Karl Johnson was fantastic as the old blind man who “sees” past the creature’s ugliness and identifies his soul.

I wonder if Cumberbatch and Lee Miller will share the theatre awards next year? They sort of should. Many critics said that Lee Miller’s monster was better than Cumberbatch’s. But they saw both.

I tried to read Shelley’s novel in my early twenties and gave up, defeated. Maybe I’ll give it another crack. They played a short making-of documentary before the play – risking letting light in upon magic, although the footage was from rehearsals and not the production itself – and Frankenstein was described by some academic or other as a creation myth for the age of science. This is a fascinating idea, and one that’s not fully explored in, say, the classic 1931 film of Frankenstein, which, as Boyle notes, took away the creature’s voice. His version gives it back.

Oh, and despite a full house, the two seats in front of us were empty. RESULT!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 17 and 24 March 2011. The cast included Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Miller, who alternated in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. The Curzon Mayfair is a London cinema. My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live website for Frankenstein

I've been spoilt this week …

Source: Extract from Lily Middleton, ‘I’ve been spoilt this week …’, Graduate Life! blog, http://lilymiddleton.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/ive-been-spoilt-this-week.html, 28 February 2014

Text: Last night I headed to the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea to see the National Theatre’s live streaming of War Horse. I’ve wanted to see War Horse for a long time, however looking to go recently the tickets are not cheap. So when I spotted that it was being streamed to the cinema, for a much more do-able price, I was in buying my tickets immediately. I’ve seen a Jamie Cullum gig streamed to a cinema before, which was weird at first but then you get used to it. This was much the same, at first you’re very conscious you’re watching a theatre through a screen, however once the enchanting and heart-wrenching story of War Horse begins I was completely immersed. The play is truly incredible; it’s amazing how quickly you forget you’re watching a puppet and feel affection for Joey. I especially liked how they don’t ever hide the fact that the horses are puppets, the costumes of the puppeteers aren’t particularly hiding them although do match the colours of the horse. With hardly any set, it really is a treat for the power of the imagination, whatever your age. I was transported to a variety of locations from scenic Devon to the horror of the trenches through simple props and lighting – and of course the power of the story itself taking you to these locations.

The story is powerful and heart wrenching. Billy raises Joey from a foal and they build a powerful bond, which we see is unbreakable. Joey is sold to the Army and the two are split, this play tells the story of the two characters individual war experiences and the ending is so emotional I’m welling up just thinking about it. It is a beautiful story and left my Mum and I in tears. As if the performance itself wasn’t special enough, at the end Joey himself entered the cinema! Everyone burst into excited applause; it was a privilege to be there and meet Joey. I think it may be the closest I’ve ever been to a horse! Everyone was commenting on how real he seemed, and as he walked around the cinema amongst a sea of camera phones and people trying to stroke him, he just showed how extraordinary a creation he is.

NT Live is a great idea, bringing live theatre to cinemas. However I didn’t like the interval feature, it was behind the scenes videos, showing behind the scenes footage and interviews. This would be great to see at the end of the show, or a few days later. But seeing this in the middle of the show slightly broke the magic that had been cast over the cinema, particularly as the clips showed parts of the play we had not yet even seen!

Comments: Lily Middleton is a British marketing & PR assistant, theatre reviewer and musician. War Horse, the National Theatre’s 2007 stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the First World War, was broadcast to cinemas in the NT Live series from the New London Theatre on 27 February 2014. The remainder of the blog post covers an actual stage production, The Lion King. My thanks to Lily Middleton for permission to reproduce this extract.

Links: NT Live web page for War Horse

I’ve been spoilt this week …

Source: Extract from Lily Middleton, ‘I’ve been spoilt this week …’, Graduate Life! blog, http://lilymiddleton.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/ive-been-spoilt-this-week.html, 28 February 2014

Text: Last night I headed to the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea to see the National Theatre’s live streaming of War Horse. I’ve wanted to see War Horse for a long time, however looking to go recently the tickets are not cheap. So when I spotted that it was being streamed to the cinema, for a much more do-able price, I was in buying my tickets immediately. I’ve seen a Jamie Cullum gig streamed to a cinema before, which was weird at first but then you get used to it. This was much the same, at first you’re very conscious you’re watching a theatre through a screen, however once the enchanting and heart-wrenching story of War Horse begins I was completely immersed. The play is truly incredible; it’s amazing how quickly you forget you’re watching a puppet and feel affection for Joey. I especially liked how they don’t ever hide the fact that the horses are puppets, the costumes of the puppeteers aren’t particularly hiding them although do match the colours of the horse. With hardly any set, it really is a treat for the power of the imagination, whatever your age. I was transported to a variety of locations from scenic Devon to the horror of the trenches through simple props and lighting – and of course the power of the story itself taking you to these locations.

The story is powerful and heart wrenching. Billy raises Joey from a foal and they build a powerful bond, which we see is unbreakable. Joey is sold to the Army and the two are split, this play tells the story of the two characters individual war experiences and the ending is so emotional I’m welling up just thinking about it. It is a beautiful story and left my Mum and I in tears. As if the performance itself wasn’t special enough, at the end Joey himself entered the cinema! Everyone burst into excited applause; it was a privilege to be there and meet Joey. I think it may be the closest I’ve ever been to a horse! Everyone was commenting on how real he seemed, and as he walked around the cinema amongst a sea of camera phones and people trying to stroke him, he just showed how extraordinary a creation he is.

NT Live is a great idea, bringing live theatre to cinemas. However I didn’t like the interval feature, it was behind the scenes videos, showing behind the scenes footage and interviews. This would be great to see at the end of the show, or a few days later. But seeing this in the middle of the show slightly broke the magic that had been cast over the cinema, particularly as the clips showed parts of the play we had not yet even seen!

Comments: Lily Middleton is a British marketing & PR assistant, theatre reviewer and musician. War Horse, the National Theatre’s 2007 stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the First World War, was broadcast to cinemas in the NT Live series from the New London Theatre on 27 February 2014. The remainder of the blog post covers an actual stage production, The Lion King. My thanks to Lily Middleton for permission to reproduce this extract.

Links: NT Live web page for War Horse

Is Beaming Live Royal Shakespeare Company Performances to Cinema Audiences a Good Thing?

Source: Albert Clack, ‘Is Beaming Live Royal Shakespeare Company Performances to Cinema Audiences a Good Thing?’, Albert Clack’s Blogs, http://www.albertclack.uk/rsccinema.html, November 2013

Text: Like many other people in Britain and other countries, I went to a cinema to watch the first live transmission of a performance of a play by William Shakespeare by the Royal Shakespeare Company at their theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The play was Richard II. I have no intention of reviewing it. This article is about the method which was used to show it to me.

Beforehand, I had reservations about this mode of seeing a play; after all, much of the point of theatre, as opposed to cinema or television, is the immediacy of being in the presence of real, live actors in the shared experience which is what theatre is all about.

Conversely, much of the point of cinema is that, by using a variety of locations, sets, camera angles, and through cinematographic artistry and skilful editing, it can produce realism, escapism, and all sorts of magic in ways theatre cannot.

My anxieties were that this hybrid – live actors on stage in front of a theatre audience being projected through the ether on to a distant screen – would prove to be neither fish nor fowl; that stage acting might look false ‘through the glass’; or that, on the contrary, the actors might feel forced to adapt their style to the presence of the cameras and thereby produce something unsuitable for the stage.

I need not have worried. Although the frisson was inevitably somewhat diminished by not being in the actual physical proximity of the likes of David Tennant, Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire, this was compensated by the ability of the transmission’s director to do things such as going into close-up when appropriate, tracking slowly and dramatically in towards a key area of the stage, and following a character as he or she paced up and down.

True, that took away the choice of where to look that one enjoys when in the theatre. I recall once in the National Theatre that while Oedipus was making his long, agonising speech bringing himself ever closer to the appalling truth that none of us wants him to learn, I chose to watch Jocasta’s reaction for most of the time because it was much more interesting.

For a scene or two at the beginning of the experience, it concerned me that I might not be allowed that option; then I forgot about it, which suggests that a sensitive balance was being struck between showing speaker and listener when it mattered; a more difficult task in a live transmission than in a movie, where all sorts of edits may be tried before the final cut is settled upon. Besides, the ability to use close-ups was used sparingly, and for much of the time we saw much of the stage.

I would still prefer to be there in person. Who wouldn’t? But we can’t always be where we want to be; and many people simply cannot afford the cost of admission and travel to such performances; so if live transmissions like this can pack ’em it at one remove, it is surely a good thing in various ways.

For one thing, the economics of running theatres and theatre companies in this country are now so distorted that tickets cost too much for any but the comfortably off to attend with any frequency; however, these transmissions are cheaper to get into (although still more expensive than a film), so they may generate new audiences away from London, Stratford, and other major urban centres.

For another, the experience of attending a transmission at a cinema may encourage new audiences to move on to ‘the real thing’.

There is what I would consider a missed opportunity, at least so far, in this phenomenon. The age profile of the audience in the Stevenage Cineworld was, quite simply, pretty old.

Surely it would make sense to lure the young towards live theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, by offering them very cheap, or even free, admission? The future of the theatre in Britain lies not with audiences of old age pensioners such as myself, but with new generations fired by the excitement of live performance.

If tens of thousands of them had seen ‘Dr Who’ demonstrating his true acting ability – what consequences might that have had for future audience profiles at the RSC, the National, and in our struggling provincial theatres?

Comments: Albert Clack is a British actor and writer. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II was streamed live to cinemas on 13 November 2013. It included David Tennant as Richard II, Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Nigel Lindsay as Bolingbroke. It was the first production in the RSC Live series of live streamed plays. My thanks to Albert Clack for permission to reproduce his article here.

Theatre: pass the popcorn

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Theatre: pass the popcorn’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 10 December 2010, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/ 2010/12/10/theatre-pass-the-popcorn/

Text: More cross-platform arts. This time, Hamlet, live from the National Theatre, beamed into cinemas, in our case, the Curzon Mayfair. What a superb initiative. I will give you my opinion of Rory Kinnear’s Dane in a moment. First, a couple of practical concerns: the Mayfair is a glorious cinema, with a huge, 311-seat main screen, and a more intimate, 103-seat second screen. I saw White Ribbon in Screen One here last year, in the afternoon, and it ensured my experience of the film was about as effective and memorable as it could have been. I also hosted the Lost Q&A here last year, to a packed house of nerds, and the place really buzzes when it’s full. When we booked Hamlet, it was showing in Screen One. Unfortunately, in the interim, a charity gala premiere of The King’s Speech was booked into Screen One, and Hamlet was bumped into Screen Two. Because of the gala, with red carpet, barriers, press and people milling about in the lobby in smart coats, the bar was closed, so we couldn’t get a drink beforehand.

We could have done with one, as we were sat next to a party of three adults, a man and two women, who spent the whole of the build-up to the play playing on their BlackBerries, ignoring the pre-show film about the history of Hamlet, which was very interesting. I had to tell them to turn their phones off, as the bright, torch-like screens were in my eyeline. They did so. And then … after Hamlet had started, during the key opening scenes with the ghost of his father, they got them out again. I asked them to put them away, again. They did so, for the duration this time. What is the point of spending over the odds to see a live theatre production in a cinema and texting people? I can understand it when it’s idiot kids who know no better and have paid a few quid to be somewhere that isn’t outside, but these were grown adults! (During Act II, they munched from a massive box of popcorn. Yes, I know it’s on sale at the cinema, but this was a dramatic play, not a noisy blockbuster. During a knife’s edge soliloquy, you don’t want to hear the mouse-like rustling of hands going into popcorn and the popcorn being masticated. I put up with it.) Anyway, niggles over.

The production itself was magnificent. I speak as someone who has only seen Hamlet on film, never live, so I may be an unreliable witness – although the notices do seem to be positive – but Rory Kinnear really did make me understand the play for the first time. It is Nick Hytner’s production, and much of the appreciation must go in his direction: the decision to set it in a modern police state was very clever, and even Hamlet’s soliloquys were attended by shady men in suits with earpieces in, lurking in the dark. We get a recording device in a bible, paperwork being pushed across desks, camera crews filming Fontibras at the front … on a mostly bare stage, with lights and other props being moved around by the cast, and much of the action lit by torches and spotlights, and Hamlet’s dad’s ghost a truly unsettling grey apparition, this is atmospheric stuff indeed. Kinnear gives a smart interpretation of the Prince – an ordinary guy in a hoodie, with a smiley face drawn on his t-shirt to represent his duplicitously, villainous uncle, feigning madness with lots of comic business, that is both funny and disturbing. I noticed that he and David Calder as Polonious, used pauses very effectively, as if they were mouthing the words before saying them; quite a revelation from the more formal Shakespeares I saw as a schoolboy.

We never studied Hamlet, but it amazes me how much of it you just sort of know: the basic plot, the key markers like the gravedigger scene, and the speeches. I can almost recite “To be or not to be,” without ever having read the Brodie’s Notes. The whole thing made me retroactively despise Kenneth Branagh’s frilly and overwrought film version.

It’s unusual seeing a play, being performed live, at the cinema, with crowd murmuring beforehand, and Emma Freud popping up at the beginning and the end to top and tail it (this was being beamed not just around the UK, but across the world), but, as with Sleeping Beauty, there are advantages to close-ups you would never see from Row G of the National, and to – very sparing – camera cuts, which help to block out the action. I’m sure theatre purists would say it’s a poor substitute, but I am not one. I saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National in 2004, and was impressed by it – another production on a bare stage with minimal scenery – but I don’t go to the theatre often, unless it is to see ballet or a musical, which I feel are better value for money! I feel rather privileged to have seen Kinnear, and Calder, and Clare Higgins, and Patrick Malahide, fretting and strutting while I sat in a cinema in Mayfair, and other people sat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and others again in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, and elsewhere. Yes, we clapped at the end!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Hamlet was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 9 December 2010. The cast include Rory Kinnear (Hamlet), Clare Higgins (Gertrude), Patrick Malahide (Claudius), David Calder (Polonius), James Laurenson (Ghost/Player King) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia). My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live web site for Hamlet

Live from the Met

Source: John Wyver, ‘Live from the Met’, Illuminations blog, 26 February 2007, http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=8

Text: On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes. Or rather I saw how one strand of what we used to think of as arts television will develop. I went to the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. But I also went to the opera, for this was an evening when the Gate was showing a live transmission in High Definition from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. And it did feel a little (just a little) like turning up at the Met, even if the ticket price was £25 rather than the $300 top-price charge in New York.

As we went in, projected onto the screen were pictures of people filtering into the auditorium across the Atlantic. There was an intermission for drinks and ice creams (and the Gate has a welcome policy of allowing drinks to be taken in – and in glasses too). People applauded after some of the arias and, once they had realised that it was socially acceptable, with even greater enthusiasm at the end. The HD pictures from the stage were stunning and the sound, at least where I was sitting was more than acceptable (friends further back felt that the audio feed was far too thin). But of course the experience for me was was neither exactly cinema nor opera; indeed it might best be described as live television on a big screen with an audience.

The opera was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Renée Fleming as Tatiana and Valery Gergiev conducting. The cast and musicians all performed at the top of their game, and there were times, especially towards the end, when the experience was completely involving and emotionally affecting. The immensely experience[d] Brian Large directed the cameras, and did a wonderful job of pointing up the dramatic confrontations, staying back for the spectacles and on occasions getting in close for intimacy. The stage production was very spare, with exquisite lighting by Jean Kalman, and this translated wonderfully to the screen.

Saturday a week ago I watched the repeat of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on BBC4 from Covent Garden. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two experiences, but despite Rheingold being among my favourite two or three operas, I quite definitely preferred the experience of going to the Gate. Even allowing for the HD quality, the pictures from the Met were cleaner and clearer -the lighting at Covent Garden looked shadowy and uneven. There was also a much greater sense of occasion and ritual, even though I tried to clear the evening and settle down before the television with a decent red wine. As for whether I preferred an introduction from Mikhail Barysnikov or Michael Portillo (guess who was where) I could have lived without both, but I much preferred the detailed information about the opera and production on the Met’s website to the scrappy online information made available by the BBC.

One of the intriguing aspects of this initiative by the Met is that it takes “television” back to a moment just after World War Two when cinema chains in America experimented with live broadcasts into theatres. Both Paramount and RCA trialled projection systems in 1947 and in 1949 screenings of World Series baseball were immensely popular in New York, Boston and Chicago. Over one hundred theatres were equipped but the returns were never significant enough to recoup the costs. Then the regulatory authority refused to licence exclusive broadcast channels and television started to become the fundamentally domestic medium with which we’ve all grown up.

Satellites and HD, however, offer the chance to do things differently, and these early sell-out screenings of Met broadcasts (they are doing six this season, although not all are being taken in the UK) suggest that there’s a commercial future for this new experience. Next up is The Barber of Seville on March 24.

Comments: John Wyver is a British writer and producer of arts-based programmes with his company Illuminations. The streaming of live performances of theatrical productions into cinemas (and other venues) appears to have begun in late 2006 with the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series (one of whose broadcasts into the UK is the subject of the blog post reproduced here), though as Wyver notes there is a long history of televised broadcasts into cinemas. The genre of live stage productions shown in cinemas has not settled on a term as yet: streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema have all been used. Picturegoing has settled on the term streamed theatre. Wyver has become a producer of streamed theatre himself with RSC Live, whose first production was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II in 2013. The Met’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was first produced on 27 February 24 2007 and starred Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin), Renée Fleming (Tatiana) and Ramón Vargas (Lensky), with conductor Valery Gergiev. The Gate is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK still operating as a cinema, having been founded in 1911. My thanks to John Wyver for the permission to reproduce his post here.