June 25, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Curtain calls or credits? Phedre (NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre

Writing about web page http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/events/id/4118

I caught the National’s Phedre last night – or, at least, an aspect of it. For this was the launch of the National’s NT Live Project, which saw a live performance screened simultaneously on over 200 screens around the world. I caught it at Warwick Arts Centre, which added a further level of interest as it was being screened in their main theatre rather than their cinema, further confusing the sense of what we were watching – live show or film, or both?

I’m not going to talk about the production, in keeping with my English-Renaissance-dramatists-only policy, but I want to talk about the event, the framing within which this performance took place.

Phedre publicity art

Firstly, it was rather more successful technically than I had expected. A couple of sound glitches, the occasional quick re-focus of the camera and some awkward screen compositions aside, the live recording team did an extremely good job of catching the production. Zooms, close-ups and intelligent cutting kept the action of the frame moving quickly and created some interesting moments unavailable to the theatre-goer: for example, Aricia and Hippolytus failed to see Theseus enter as they kissed, and the close-up on them meant we shared their surprise as they suddenly broke away to see him standing there.

However, is this what we actually want from theatre? For a broadcast, there has to be creative use of camera angles, for a fixed-camera perspective is near-unwatchable (ask anyone who’s used the archives). Some argue that that replicates the experience of watching from a fixed seat in the auditorium, but this isn’t the case. The live space has a depth of field and focus that allows the audience member to move their head, look on different aspects of the space; translating that to two dimensions on a screen narrows and flattens the perspective, fixing the viewer in an unnatural and unhelpful way.

By removing the viewer’s ability to choose what they watch, and to have the overarching view of the whole stage, the experience is necessarily narrowed. We are put in the hands of the camera operator and editor; our experience is channelled through an intermediary. We see what they want us to see. This is true of film; but, this being a live broadcast, the production was necessarily limited in its ability to present us with exactly what they wanted to see: mistakes, errors and unexpected movements meant that the editorial team were able to present us not with exactly what they wanted us to see, but with the best that they were able to.

This was shown quite clearly in a troubling interview with Nicholas Hytner screened before the broadcast. In the same breath he told us that the cameras would merely be observers, therefore allowing the experience for cinema viewers to be the same as for the live audience. At the same time, he told us that the cameras would be aiming to pick out those aspects which they expected an audience would be focussing on at any given point. This shows a breathtaking arrogance in the director, assuming that he is far enough aware of the audience’s interest that the experience can be accordingly mediated for them. At its most basic, this ignores the fact that the audience watch multiple aspects of the production at the same time; and to narrow that field of view obscures much of what makes up the live audience member’s experience. More problematically, it assumes that we want to watch the speaker rather than the on-stage reaction to the speaker’s words. Too often during the performance, we were bound to watch whoever was speaking when what may have been more interesting would have been to track the reaction of the person being spoken to. Nicholas Hytner may not think that that’s of interest; and perhaps it wasn’t, but as an audience member I need to be able to make that choice for myself.

In this sense, then, the production was too narrowly focussed to be any reflection of the theatrical experience; but not controlled enough to take advantage of the directorial control that film allows. What we were left with was something in between, which gave a sense of the production but nothing more.

There were other issues, most problematically one of social divide and mediation. The screening was prefaced with over half an hour of introductory material from Nicholas Hytner and Jeremy Irons (who, incidentally, apparently seemed to wish he was anywhere else). Firstly, this was an aspect of the cinema experience which we could have quite happily done without: the ‘trailers’ were longer than at the Odeon!

Secondly, I was troubled at the content of what we were given. The discussion about the nature of the NT Live experiment was welcome and useful. However, we were then subjected to several minutes of interviews with cast and creatives, discussion of directorial and design decisions and snippets of rehearsal photography and audio footage. This was, of course, only for the screen audience’s benefit, and I felt it was patronising and ill-advised. The imputation appeared to be that the provincial and international audience required elements of the production (including the back-story of the play) to be explained for them before they were allowed to see the performance itself, directing the viewer’s thoughts before the curtain rose. Some people justify this as being similar to reading a programme beforehand, but this is emphatically not the case. The programme allows the viewer choice: they can read about the production beforehand, or they can put it to one side. The cinema screening forced contextual information onto the viewer as a requirement of and prelude to viewing. Intentionally or no, it was implied that the live London audience didn’t need this, while we viewing elsewhere did. It also did the production a disservice, directing audiences towards a shared understanding of the production’s intentions that negated the need for the audience to stretch themselves in the same way as a live audience.

Thirdly, we were required to watch for half an hour as the suited London audience seated themselves in the auditorium. The presence of a live audience offered nothing for the cinema audiences: they were invisible and inaudible for the entire production, an absent presence. To watch them at the start, therefore, seemed only to work to position exactly where the cinema audience weren’t: we were present yet excluded; unacknowledged by the sharers in the live experience at all times. The on-screen crowd were the privileged spectators; as Hytner pointed out at the start, the actors would be performing entirely for their benefit in order to preserve the live experience. In essence, then, the international audience were immediately excluded from the ‘real’ experience: live audience were unaware of us, actors were actively ignoring us. We were voyeurs, not participants, and the fact that the live audience were given prominence at the start (we were watching them) reinforced the respective statuses of the various groups in this enterprise.

This became more troublesome in terms of the actual acting; for live performances do not all translate well to screen. In particular, Stanley Townsend’s Theseus looked stilted and uncomfortable in extreme close-up, his movements stiff and awkward in a way that may well have looked quite commanding from the stalls, but from a foot away seemed oddly artificial. More upsettingly, John Shrapnel’s excellently performed description of Hippolytus’ death, with every nuance of the speech acted with frenzied gusto, actually turned out quite funny in close-up, and I was torn between deep feeling at the character’s despair and laughter at the ridiculousness of the mediated image. By contrast, Dominic Cooper seemed to be playing far more for the cameras than the other actors, playing much of his response to other speakers through subtleties of expression and eye movement, which the camera picked up gloriously: yet I have no idea if the live audience would have noticed this.

Lastly for now (though I particularly hope this debate continues) was the matter of the ending, for which I turned my attention to specifically look at what the audience at Warwick did. The London audience began clapping long before our audience did, and the response was distinctly divided. Most people seemed to want to applaud, but a substantial portion simply got up and left. However, it became far more interesting as the curtain calls continued: for, it being a live performance, the curtain calls were long and conducted in multiple parts: individual bows, curtains rising and falling, etc. The applause at Warwick died down extremely quickly, while the London applause simply got ever greater. Some brave souls in our auditorium continued clapping extremely hard, and I had to wonder exactly why: were they genuinely carried away by enthusiasm for the production, or were they simply doing it because they thought they were meant to?

The problem was one of dissociation from the performance. What, exactly, is the nature of applause? It acts as a release of tension, as a means of congratulation and as a reaffirming of the shared experience of performance. The camera and cinema screen, however, acted as a divide which confused the issue enormously. The actors had not been acting for us– they had, explicitly, been acting for the crowd in the Lyttleton. Equally, our responses had been invisible to the cast, and continued to be: we had not in any way contributed to the live experience of the performance. Applause thus lost much of its significance, which I believe is why the Warwick audience’s applause was overall united, but extremely brief. Applause served, in the end, mostly as a form of self-affirmation of the experience: we were applauding because that’s what we would do in the course of a live event; we were attempting to justify our experience as truly theatrical.

This was immediately undercut, as the safety curtain went down for the last time, by the appearance of scrolling credits, listing cast, crew and technical support for the broadcast. Applause or credits – can you have both? For this event you apparently can, but neither seemed to properly fit the moment. These final moments of confusion over how to respond were entirely dictated by anxiety over how we were supposed to respond, and it was clear that the audience at Warwick were very much divided on this: some felt it was a film, some a show, some something undefined inbetween that had no rules. What was lacking was the feeling of a gut, unified audience response: the swell of an ovation, the shared intakes of breath, the movement and buzz of a live audience. The audience watching Phedre in the Warwick Arts Centre Theatre last night were like no theatre audience I’ve ever been a part of. The appearance of the cinema screen immediately asks people to sit back and be entertained, to be passive, and for Phedre this simply felt wrong.

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So, a lot of problems. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the production itself, even if I’m suspicious of the medium through which I experienced it. My final big worry, however, is that the inevitable success of this experiment will result in a shift towards this as the norm for the provinces, as opposed to large-scale touring shows. It’s been a while since the National brought a large show around (the Arts Centre has had History Boys, Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Pillowman and plenty of other big productions in the last few years), and the live screening is a far cheaper and wider-reaching means of fulfilling the touring remit. I think this is a wonderful, wonderful thing for those areas to which the National would never go: for theatre-lovers in Australia or the US, for example, the chance to see a production that there would be no other way of seeing is obviously a great thing.

As a way of reaching larger audiences, too, it’s a laudable enterprise – though, a far more democratic and academically sound way of doing this is to follow the RSC model: take the company into a studio, film a proper, made-for-camera version of the production and then screen it on TV and sell DVDs, which allows it to reach a much wider audience than the NT Live project and remakes the theatrical product in a manner which works with the screen medium. My issues with this project are the claims that it in any way replicates the theatrical experience: from an academic and theoretical point of view, this is deeply problematic, and even in realisation it lacked much of what makes a theatrical experience truly theatrical.

The next NT Live production is All’s Well That Ends Well on October 1st, which will give me the chance to see the live screening applied to a production I’ve already seen in person, which I hope will allow me to compare the experiences usefully. For now, I found Phedre itself successful, but the medium will, to my mind, only be acceptable if it continues to be an optional extra, rather than a perceived replacement for the live experience.

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