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Shall I compare thee to a cinema relay? Thou art more accessible and more climate controlled ...

Written by Becky Rae.

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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.

Traditional adaptations follow the idea that set, costume and time period are representational of what could have been in Shakespearean times. Modern adaptations take full advantage of artistic license, changing time period, location, and sometimes language to suit the needs of the director’s vision. Most would argue that modernised adaptations allow for a much more accessible viewing for modern audiences, using recognizable elements that we can understand and relate to. However, there are those who find modernisation of these classic texts a discredit to their original creation, skewing the traditional Shakespearean viewing experience and that by altering elements such as time period and costume, subtexts and themes may differ from Shakespeare’s original intention; for example, Nicholas Hytner’s well-received Henry V featuring Adrian Lester in an Iraq War context in 2003. Should this performance be screened in cinemas (live or encore), it would pose some interesting questions surrounding Shakespeare and modern screens, for in the play itself “The up-to-date references are innumerable with the most memorable being a large television screen that is used both to show the actors like pop stars three times their own size and also to fill in gaps in the plot.”

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.”

However, The Globe has a very strong education ethos and shows are recorded for prosperity and repeated viewing - you can purchase DVDs of each play from 2007 onwards and they run an on demand streaming service in the form of GlobePlayer

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?

So, perhaps screenings of modernised adaptations work better for the cinema as the focus is less on the Shakespearean viewing experience but on the performance itself, generally presented in familiar theatre surroundings with contextual signifiers such as the proscenium stage, artificial lighting and special effects. The lack of audience participation in these performances means that both the theatre and cinema audience are out of harm’s way - we can watch from a safe distance and comfortably drop in and out of what is presented in front of us. Perfect for a ‘millenial’ audience who are used to screen hopping from phone to tablet, TV to laptop screen. Indeed, screens seem a popular element to modernized adaptations of Shakespeare; in this year’s As You Like It (performed on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre 2015/2016 and broadcast live to cinemas on 25 February with upcoming encore screenings) set Shakespeare’s comedy inside a corporate office jungle with the set constructed out of office chairs and desktop computers, which then reform to give the impression of The Forest of Arden. It’s worth noting that the famous phrase “All the world’s a stage” belongs to this play; a perfect example of how clever an updated setting of what our world now looks like can be, and a true testament to the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s work. Though reviews were lukewarm (there is an interesting comparative review of a theatre-goer vs. a cinema-goer here) the idea of using contemporary signifiers as a starting point and then literally moving through them as the piece goes on is a technique that works well for enticing modern audiences.

It’s something Baz Luhrmann did to great effect in his 1996 William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, a film which a decade later is still referred to on the GCSE curriculum for its accessible depiction to teens. For this age group, Shakespearean language is treated as a barrier that has to be broken in order for modern audiences to understand its meaning. Luhrmann uses tropes from recognisable film genres such as the melodrama and western, zooming camera shots and fast cuts alike to MTV and contemporary music (something Shakespeare used to do) to aid a younger viewer’s reading of the story. In the opening shot, the viewer is addressed by a black screen upon which an old television set appears, playing white noise, opening credits then news report. The camera slowly zooms into this television set, apparently stopping once it has tripled in size. Still surrounded by empty space, the television set appears as a barrier, blocking the camera from zooming in any closer to what we read as a three-dimensional object. Yet, as discussed by many critics of Luhrmann’s work, his films are rife with splendid surfaces and so the omnipotent camera ignores this barrier and instead carries on, seemingly bursting through the pixelated screen and ‘into’ the film; into the text and into its meaning.

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.