October 2, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
All’s Well that Ends Well (NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema
Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=52899
Nicholas Hytner, in an interview with Alex Jennings that preceded the National Theatre’s second NT Live broadcast, qualified the expectations for this experimental programme in a way which chimed more with my own expectations. The broadcast of Phedre back in June was preceded by rather hyperbolic and over-ambitious suggestions that the event would recreate a theatrical experience; that the cameras would not interfere with the audience’s experience; and that the ‘product’ received around the world would be of a comparable quality to that experienced in London.
This time around, Hytner expressed himself rather better. The initial experiment, he suggested, had seen them create something that was not quite theatre, not quite cinema, but a new generic form altogether, and it was this that they wished to explore further. It’s a commendable admission. The live broadcast is always going to be technically inferior to a studio-shot production that can take full advantages of a screen medium; while in terms of a live event, one can never hope to give the spectators the control over their own viewing experience that the theatre audience enjoys, or re-create the atmosphere of a live show. However, by deliberately aiming for something different, the experiment is (in my eyes, at least) validated somewhat. The question becomes not whether the screened All’s Well was as good as the live All’s Well, but what this unique format offered on its own terms.
The framing materials were well chosen. I have an issue with the director and actor interviews that precede the screening, explaining their creative decisions and interpretations. It rather implies that the provincial and international audiences need a level of mediation that the live audiences in London do not, and I find it both patronising and reductive to be instructed how to interpret a production before I am allowed to see it. The opposing argument would be that the materials are similar to those that are in a programme, but the point is that one can choose whether or not to read a programme, while one cannot choose to absent oneself from the screened interviews.
That said, it was pleasing to see the National experiment with the medium to present items that are not available in any other format. Some archive footage showing the historical connections between Shakespeare and the National was genuinely informative and gave some interesting context to the occasion, but the best part was an ‘in-the-wings’ conversation between director Marianne Elliott and actor Elliot Levey, in costume as Lord Dumaine. Instead of explaining the production, this short, sweet interview gave a palpable sense of excitement to the occasion, with Levey explaining the excitement that the cast felt at their final performance and the screening. Paradoxically, the cameras allowed a greater sense of intimacy in this moment than the live experience.
However, the good work of the framing material was distressingly undone by the criminally unwise idea of a mid-show talk. Returning after a 20 minute interval, Jennings was now on the Olivier stage, this time with designer Rae Smith, who he interviewed for ten minutes about the production’s design. This interruption to the evening’s proceedings was extremely unwelcome, killing the momentum of the production far more damagingly than an interval does and asking too much of the audience in adjusting their mindset. This was made worse by the fact that Smith deliberately tried to avoid saying anything that would give away the events of the second half, and was thus prevented from giving an interestingly complete picture of her work – which begged the question, why attempt to do an interview halfway through at all, if the timing means that a decent interview can’t be achieved?
The screening itself went extremely well. The scale of the Olivier stage and auditorium allowed for the cameras to be extremely mobile and wide-ranging, creating a sense of space and three-dimensional activity that the rather more static Phedre had not been able to convey. While there were still frustrations in the choice of camera angles, particularly when a character in close-up reacted to something that was out of view, the cameras were extremely effective in picking out details that had certainly not registered as strongly when I saw the production in person.
Chief among the beneficiaries was Conleth Hill, whose larger than life Parolles was born for the big screen. In close-up, Parolles came dangerously close to stealing the entire show. Hill filled the screen with extravagent gestures and the continual ruffling up of his plumes and sleeves. In his first conversation with Michelle Terry’s Helena, the camera gave us privileged access to his face; turning away at one point, his eyes lit up as he interpreted her "How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?" as a come-on, and he quickly swept back his hair and checked his breath before turning back to her to lounge seductively (as he thought) across the bench they shared.
More importantly, however, the pathos of Hill’s performance came across extremely effectively. Left alone in soliloquy after his ‘discovery’ by Lafew and his public humiliation, on both occasions his body slumped, crestfallen, and his eyes and mouth remained low even as, with his words, he tried to pick up his own spirits. There was something desperately sad about this man, whose entire personality was constructed around a performance of his own worth. With that performance stripped away, Hill allowed us to glimpse the vulnerability and insecurity that had driven him to become a braggart.
The testing by the Countess (Clare Higgins) of Helena also benefitted from the camera’s close eye. Here, her play-acting was made wonderfully comic, as the camera cut to her hidden reactions of joy to the revelation of Helena’s love for Bertram before turning back with a severe frown. All through the production, in fact, we gained in perceived insight into the character’s ‘true’ faces. Bertram and Helena’s first taking of hands, under the King’s command, was tentative and terrified, Bertram’s eyes widening with fear and discomfort as he felt the eyes of the court on him. Perhaps surprisingly, the wonderful performances of the two Counts Dumaine (Levey and Tony Jayawardena) were pushed even further into prominence, and a highlight was their simple conversation about the end of the war and Bertram’s disgrace, intercut with Helena and Diana preparing their plot. This chat became an intimate and almost choric commentary on the morality of the play, delivered in an inocuous form that privileged the spectator as voyeur, rather than audience – as if we were accidentally privy to the unspoken concerns of Bertram’s companions.
The medium failed to serve the production in creating the atmosphere of the live show. Back projections showing silhouettes of owls, wolves, withered trees and other fairytale markers were invisible during the main action, and instead were cut to quickly at the start of scenes in an effort to show the atmosphere rather than create it. In practice, this meant that the screen occasionally cut to what looked like a cartoon of woodland animals, which invariably just drew a laugh and then failed to impact on the subsequent scene. However, the cameras did effectively convey the size of the space, and their mobility was particularly well-utilised in establishing shots of the whole stage and slow pans across still scenes: the parade of the victorious soldiers, for example, lingered on each of the soldiers as they moved in slow-motion, finally resting on Bertram as he raised his plumes and celebrated his new honour.
The NT Live experiment worked as an excellent companion to a live viewing of All’s Well that Ends Well. Where the live production drew the spectator to the spectacle and massed action, the broadcast picked out subtleties in the performances which allowed certain moments to become more moving, while also drawing out jokes that may have been lost on stage – in particular, Lafew’s straight-to-camera asides worked far better on screen than at the edge of the Olivier stage where the direct address was rather overwhelmed by everything else. It shows the NT Live project moving in an encouraging direction, and hopefully future live Shakespeare broadcasts will learn from this screening’s mistakes and build on its strengths.