Written by Becky Rae.
Live or ‘event’ cinema, as it has been termed, has grown quicker than you can say “defer no time, delays have dangerous ends” (Henry VI: Part 1). Of the 42 options currently available for me to book at my local Cineworld, 23 are of the event cinema genre. That’s over half, ranging from live concerts, theatre, ballet, opera, exhibitions and encore screenings, (repeated recordings of previous live streams). This cinema-going phenomenon still needs serious exploration (I would thoroughly recommend reading this recent Arts Council report if you are interested in this area) and sadly now is not the time nor place for such rigorous investigation. Instead, this piece will focus on event cinema options of Shakespearean performances, taking into account traditional and modernised adaptations. The definitions of each are important to define and regardless of setting and costume, it’s worth noting that all performances of Shakespearean plays are generally referred to as adaptations; more conservative Shakespearean scholars would argue Shakespeare’s text exists in its purest form as script and not stage-play, let alone screenings. Again, now is not the time nor place to argue Shakespeare Studies for there are those more expert than I.
In terms of Shakespeare adaptations in the current theatre climate, traditional versions are hard to come by in comparison to modern ones. Thankfully, theatrical institutions like The Globe (& its smaller Sam Wanamaker Theatre), lead the way in terms of recreating an experience as close to that of Shakespearean times, from the minimal set and lighting by candlelight to the auditorium itself; The Globe that sits on London’s Southbank is an accurate replica of its historical counterpart that would have sat a few hundred yards away. Audience members therefore stand or sit on hardwood benches in an arena that is exposed to the elements: the show goes on come rain or shine. Part of the attraction of theatre event cinema - at least as the current trend falls - is presenting the auditorium, the audience, the EXPERIENCE to the cinema-goer before the performance starts, with a presenter filling in the gaps for the cinema audience with insightful snippets whilst interval drinks are ordered and seats awkwardly shuffled into by the theatre audience. In this way, although we are not there in body, we are there in spirit and in it together. This also helps to provide context for what we are about to see and reaffirms the ‘live’ experience - we understand if an actor misses a line, drops a prop or unexpected applause occurs, it’s because what is being shown is really happening in a real place somewhere.
Imagine trying to replicate the experience of an audience member at the Globe via a cinema screen; to suggest the ache in your feet as you shuffle from foot to foot half an hour in standing at the front, or the hard wood against your back if sitting. The droplet of rain upon your face as the hustle and bustle of London goes by outside. That in itself would be a small feature, let alone the action that’s about to take place onstage. At least in a modern theatre, when the lights are off, things aren’t necessarily that different to the cinema goer - especially with a proscenium arch stage (also known as ‘window theatre’ as this provides a frame in which the action can take place whilst the audience sit flat in front - obvious parallels to the cinema screen). However, relaying a live performance, taking place in daylight with actors jostling through the audience in an auditorium that offers different angles and view points thanks to its thrust stage, encouraging verbal and physical participation from the audience itself? That’s a tall ask for a cinema-goer to suspend belief in thinking they’re part of that live experience, something which event cinema portends its popularity to. So it’s no big surprise that The Globe don’t actually offer live screenings of performances as “Unpredictable weather conditions at the open-air theatre rule out the possibility of live broadcasting in the mould of NT Live.”
And yet, the risk of poor weather hasn’t stopped them from cashing in on the popularity of event cinema - throughout 2016, three plays recorded from the 2015 season will be shown worldwide in a series of encore screenings. Again, research is limited in this rapidly insurmountable genre, so I would be interested to know if the uptake between live and encore screenings is any different - is it the ‘liveness’ cinema-goers want to experience? Or is it simply the chance to see a production they would otherwise miss? It seems from a marketing point of view it doesn’t matter with most venues charging the same price for both live and encore screenings, which I personally don’t agree with - especially when I can buy the DVD at a cheaper cost when it is essentially the same recording - does the ‘seeing it on a big screen’ rule really apply here?
Whether we agree or not, it seems screens are the modus operandi for modernising Shakespeare - or at least making it accessible for the masses, regardless of traditional or contemporary staging. Indeed, on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, it is not a play I’ll be watching tonight nor a theatre in which I’ll be sitting; Shakespeare Live! From the RSC will beam right down through my television into my living room. A collection of monologues, performances and recitals from famous faces has been staged in a celebration (one of countless others) of Shakespeare and his works, in the town of his birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon. What a unique opportunity on offer to see some of the greats perform some of his greats in the place where it all began… though unfortunately for those traditionalists hoping to enjoy the experience in the theatre, the two hours’ traffic of the stage will be too gridlocked with technical equipment: “Tickets are not on sale for this performance in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as there are a very limited number of seats in the auditorium, due to the presence of multiple television cameras.”
N.B. Of the current 19 productions listed on NT Live, 5 are Shakespeare - all are encore screenings. Kenneth Branagh’s Plays at The Garrick Season will screen his version of Romeo and Juliet in July. The Royal Opera House, who screen a selection of opera and ballet throughout the year, are interestingly not offering their current production of The Winter’s Tale.
This article was published on April 23, 2016.
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