Stage and screen: first questions for The After – Illuminations

For those of us who have been working in screen adaptations of stage performances it feels as if, in the specific as well as the general, over the past three weeks the world has turned upside down. From being just one strand in the work of theatre, opera and dance companies, nice-to-have for many but perhaps not absolutely at the heart of things, recordings in many forms of stage performances have become central. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been enjoying free streams of content that, until ten days ago, and in large part because of rights restrictions, was accessible only by scholars.

Performance companies, large and small, have been showcasing their work online, for one night only or for just seven days or for months, and for free or for a donation or as part of a trial for a streaming service. We have been privileged to engage with productions from the National Theatre, Berlin’s Schaubühne, Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London’s Royal Opera House, Rosas in Belgium, The Wooster Group, Royal Shakespeare Company and countless others. And there’s much more to come, from the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative and from other projects still being worked through.

A greater degree of mainstream critical attention has been paid to stage to screen translations in the last three weeks than in the past decade. There have been numerous coordinated Twitter parties, watch-alongs and post-show Q&As on Zoom. Companies are also beginning to make original work for online. In many ways all of this digital activity is thrilling and heady and more-than-slightly overwhelming.

Surely this is all entirely positive? Or probably? Maybe? For it’s not too early to endeavour to assess all this, to take stock somewhat, and to start to consider what may happen in The After. In whenever and whatever the new abnormal world will be, how will screen adaptations be regarded and consumed and discussed? What place will they have in whatever shapes are adopted by whatever is left of the cultural ecology?

There’s a lot to unpack in this article, notably a series of questions that the author, John Wyver, poses about what will happen in the future.

I live three miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon, and attend performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company regularly. I got to know John Wyver, the author of this article, back in 2014, when I interviewed him for this website. This interview took place shortly before the live broadcast of Henry IV Part II, the third play that the RSC filmed for live broadcast. (After Richard II, with David Tennant, and Henry IV Part I, with Antony Sher as Falstaff.)

Since then, I have had the opportunity to attend performances both of live broadcasts and camera rehearsals, and seeing how they are produced shows that they are different from the live theater experience, and that they bring a new language to the way theater is expressed. One of the key elements in these films is the proximity. With a number of cameras – usually six, one on a crane – directors have a great deal of options as to how they present plays. They can shift between long shots and close ups, they can use tracking shots, and the crane can offer interesting angles. Whether or not these films should be considered as separate from the stage productions is a question for critics, but as someone who has seen both, I feel that they are a very interesting replacement for not being able to attend the live performances, but are also works that stand on their own as versions of the live productions. I’ve seen similar films from other sources – notably the National Theatre – and they all bring the audience much closer to the play than is usually possible in a theater.

But the broader questions of the future are certainly worth considering. Wyver asks:

  • How will audiences return to bricks and mortar auditoria?
  • Will there be caution about sitting close to 10 or 100 or 1,000 others?

This is the big question. Before the lockdown, my partner and I had tickets for a play in early April at the RSC. Some time ago, we had decided that we would not attend it, and, if it wasn’t canceled would return our tickets (as members, we can do so, receiving a gift voucher in exchange). Because even on the best of nights, the theater is full of people coughing, and we couldn’t imagine sitting for three hours in close proximity to people with the thought that they could be infecting us.

Just the other day, we were discussing the issue about returning to the theater. Will there be caution about sitting close to large numbers of people? If I may be blunt, hell yeah! I think that, until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s no way that I’m attending anything in a closed space, or even in an open space in close proximity. I’m not elderly, but I do have asthma, so that puts me at risk. And since the majority of people attending productions at the RSC do skew toward the elderly, I think a lot of other people will feel the same way I do.

This is an important question for all types of performers, for theater, for live music, and even for cinema. There are certainly people who think this illness is not a big deal, and they will continue to flout lockdown rules, but you can’t fill performance spaces only with people who think they can’t get infected.

This is a truly terrible situation for all those in the performance arts, and the questions in this article are worth considering for perhaps establishing a new relationship with audiences post-COVID-19. The fact that filmed theater has become popular now, or at least recognized, is partly because there is a substantial number of such films available; in the article, Wyver points out that several RSC productions are available on a streaming service, and others will be broadcast on the BBC. (Don’t miss the Macbeth, with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack!) Many people who weren’t aware of these films are discovering them, and this could, at a minimum, interest them going forward, if they cannot afford or are too distant from theaters.

However, the price of these broadcasts in cinemas is out of reach of many people. At £20 a ticket where I live (cheaper in other cities), it’s too much to expect people to pay for something they may just want to “try out.” Cinemas love these productions, because they often sell out, and if they can double their take for one screen on an evening, that’s always desirable. But the prices are discriminatory, and they prevent lower-income people from partaking in the experience. I would love to see these films available on streaming services; not the subscription services, but ones like iTunes. I don’t know the economics of these productions, but it should be profitable if they charge a bit more than the price of a movie without gouging.

Finally, I think the most important issue for the creative arts is the fact that so many people are out of work. In the UK, if a business furloughs an employee, the government covers 80% of their salary, but many if not most creative people are freelance or self-employed, and they risk serious financial problems if this continues. And the real question is how long? Until we have a vaccine, there is no answer to this question.

Source: Stage and screen: first questions for The After – Illuminations

Apple TV+ Isn’t Worth It

Apple TV+ launched with a bunch of A-listers, and so far we have seen a handful of series on the service. I watched and enjoyed two of them – The Morning Show and For All Mankind – but now that they’re over, what do I do? I’m not interested in the other series, and, while there’s a lot of stuff that’s been announced, Apple has fallen into the trap of not having enough content to make its service worthwhile.

It’s only $5 a month, and free for a year to anyone (like me) who bought a new Apple device. That free subscription is Apple’s way of planning for this period, when there’s nothing more for people to watch. But what about those who pay cash money for the service? Since there’s no back catalog, there’s no point in paying any more.

Apple clearly knew this would happen, and this is probably why they gave away millions of free subscriptions. For a service like this to stick, however, it needs new content regularly. I liked what I saw, and it was free (well, I did pay a lot for that iPhone…), but going forward, I hope there will be a reason to want to pay for a subscription when the freebie runs out.

Filming the Show: Pardon the Intrusion? Or Punish It? – The New York Times

Joshua Henry, the star of a new Off Broadway musical called “The Wrong Man,” had tried repeatedly to signal his disapproval to the man in the onstage seating who was using his smartphone to capture his performance, but he wasn’t getting through.

By the third song, Mr. Henry had had enough. So he reached into the seats, deftly grabbed the phone out of the man’s hand, wagged it disapprovingly, and tossed it under a riser — all mid-song, without skipping a beat. “I knew I had to do something,” he explained later.

Just a few nights earlier, in Ohio, the renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had stopped playing Beethoven mid-concerto to ask a woman in the front row to quit making a video of her. After the woman rose to reply, she was escorted out of the hall by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s president, and the music resumed.

Both artists were cheered — first in person, later on social media — for taking a stand against the growing ranks of smartphone addicts who cannot resist snapping pictures and making recordings that are often prohibited by rule or by law, that are distracting to performers and patrons, and that can constitute a form of intellectual property theft.

There’s a lot of discussion around this, in part because most of the people who use their phones during concerts or plays are not regular patrons of these forms of entertainment. It’s one thing to spend your time with your camera in your hand during a rock concert, hoping to get some pics or videos, but it’s another to do so when it disturbs both the performers and the audience, as in classical concerts or plays.

I go to the theater often, notably at my local, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I’ve never seen people take their phones out during a play, but I have heard of such incidents that have occurred there. I have heard the occasional phone ring during a performance, even though people are told to ensure that their phones are off before performances begin. I not only put my phone and my Apple Watch in airplane mode, but I also put my Apple Watch in theater mode, so when I move it doesn’t light up and disturb anyone.

It’s really just a question of manners. People think that they can act like louts because they’ve paid to buy tickets, but they need to learn to respect others.

Source: Filming the Show: Pardon the Intrusion? Or Punish It? – The New York Times

Theater Review: Ian McKellan on Stage

For Ian McKellen’s 80th year, he has embarked on a tour of 80 theaters in the UK (to be followed by a run of 80 shows in London at a West End theater). The goal of this tour is to give back to the theaters he worked in over his career, and others. As such, all the proceeds of these performances go to specific projects for each theater.

I’m celebrating my 80th birthday by touring a new solo show to theatres I know well and a few that I don’t. The show starts with Gandalf and will probably end with an invitation to act with me on stage. In-between there will be anecdotes and acting. I open at my local arts centre in January and end up by August in Orkney.

Live theatre has always been thrilling to me, as an actor and in the audience. Growing up in Lancashire, I was grateful to those companies who toured beyond London and I’ve always enjoyed repaying that debt by touring up and down the country myself, with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Prospect Theatre, the Actors’ Company, as well as with commercial productions.

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Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As You Like It is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. I don’t know why: perhaps it’s the fairly straightforward plot, or the fact that it’s all about people trying to be happy, or the wonderful language which doesn’t get too obscure, and just exudes enjoyment. It was also the first play I saw at the RSC after I moved to the UK in 2013. (Read my review of that production here, and my interview with Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann – Rosalind and Orlando in that production – here.)

As You Like It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and it’s one of the plays that gets produced fairly often. I think the fact that the RSC is doing it so soon after its last production is mostly to do with the fact that the RSC is currently in a process of putting on all of the plays in a six-year period (though I think that may have slipped to eight years), and because they started filming their plays and broadcasting them to cinemas only at the end of 2013 with Richard II. So this production will eventually be part of the box set of all the plays on DVD and Blu-Ray.

This year’s production has a lot going for it, but will not please everyone. It’s quite minimalist; there are essentially no sets (though there is a thing that happens at the end). It opens with Orlando (David Ajao) sitting an a swing suspended from the rafters, above a circle of faux grass. The first half hour – the bit where he wrestles, meets Rosalind, and they both get banished – takes place with that grass on stage. When the action moves to Arden Forest, the grass is removed, the house lights come on, and there are announcements over some speakers at the back of the stage. I believe they say “All the actors to the stage,” which is followed by a few more announcements, then “All the world’s a stage,” referring to the famous speech by Jacques that comes in later. The back of the stage lifts up, and you can see the backstage area; the undecorated bit, the brick walls, the ropes tied to the walls; what the actors see when they’re behind the decor.

At the same time, most of the actors come out on stage and some clothes rails are rolled out with costumes. Some of the actors change their costumes, they all mill about, then the costumes are wheeled off and they pick up the play.

273453 As You Like It production photos 2019 2019 Web use

Photos by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC.

The first time I saw the play, I really didn’t get this, but the second time I think I understood what the director, Kimberly Sykes, intended. This is a literal interpretation of “All the world’s a stage,” with the actors showing that they are, indeed, actors, a sort of meta fourth-wall approach to the play. From this moment on, the lighting changes a bit until the end of the play, but the audience is part of the raw theatrical experience, and is almost always illuminated.

Since there are no sets, there are no trees anywhere to be seen. This is a forest, and trees are important in the play. It is either the vertical beams in the theater that are supposed to be the trees, or the audience itself, made up of hundreds of trees. (My suspicion is that it’s the latter, as Orlando pastes a few post-its with notes about Rosalind on different audience members.) All this means that the director’s vision isn’t entirely clear, and this may contribute to the many reviews that were ambivalent about the production.

In any case, looking at it through this point of view, it’s a charming, fast-paced studio play. The lack of sets makes it seem more improvised, and the fantastic Lucy Phelps is radiant as Rosalind, carrying the play throughout (Rosalind has about 20% of the lines in the play).

273544 As You Like It production photos 2019 2019 Web use

(It’s interesting to note that these production photos were shot during the dress rehearsal, but the director changed Rosalind’s costume to simple black trousers with suspenders over a white shirt. This change makes her look a lot more “pixieish,” and I think it works better. Her hair is also slicked back more, giving her a somewhat androgynous David Bowie look.)

There’s lots of audience interaction – see this article, about when I got on stage during one performance – and there’s lots of laughter and fun throughout. Sandy Grierson as Touchstone was marvelous, clowning around to keep the action moving, and Rosalind hops into the audience a few times. Anthony Byrne plays both dukes – Duke Frederick in court, and Duke Senior in the forest – and is wonderful in both roles, the former being powerful and angry, the latter being open and friendly.

273534 As You Like It production photos 2019 2019 Web use

Another quirk in this production is the 50-50 gender splint, which means that Jacques is a woman (Sophie Stanton), and Silvius is Sylvia (Amelia Donkor). This latter change alters some of the text, as Phoebe is in love with a shepherdess instead of a shepherd. I don’t think the Jacques was melancholy enough, but it was interesting to hear Stanton recite the famous “seven ages” speech.

Hats off to the many minor characters who gave their all, notably Charlotte Arrowsmith, a deaf actor, as Audrey, whose signs were interpreted by Tom Dawze as William.

Oh, and there’s that bit at the end with the massive puppet as Hymen, the god of love, giving benediction to the marriages. It’s the only large item on stage for the entire performance, and it is quite jarring. It’s imposing, and it’s really not necessary. I really don’t see why the director chose to close the play with something like this.

Having seen this production twice, I look forward to seeing it again before the run ends in August. If you can make sense of the staging, it’s lots of fun. The time went be very quickly, with never a dull moment. There were songs, lots of laughter, some tears; all in all, exactly what the world is like.

I Trod the Boards at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last Tuesday, I had a very interesting experience, playing a small but important part in a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of As You Like It. For a brief moment, I was onstage holding two pieces of paper, bearing the letters I and N, as Orlando had four audience members hold up sheets of paper spelling out the name of his love, Rosalind.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. I attended a very special performance of the play; one that was intimate, nearly a command performance, for an audience of just seven people.

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The BBC Should Broadcast More Theater

This weekend, the BBC broadcast a filmed-in-theater production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, and filmed at the Almeida Theatre in 2017. This seems to have been very popular, judging from reactions in the press and on social media. Why don’t they broadcast filmed theater more often?

Live theater broadcasts have become commonplace in the UK, with productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company beamed to cinemas several times a year. The NT Live series presents about one production a month – sometimes live, sometimes “encore” productions that they filmed in previous years – and the RSC broadcasts their Shakespeare productions, four or five a year, and has done so since 2014. (The first RSC live production was in late 2013; Richard II, starring David Tennant.) And another series, Cinema Live, produces the occasional play, along with music and dance productions.

These cinema broadcasts – part of what is called “event cinema” here, which includes operas, concerts, etc. – are now a staple of cinema viewing, but they are expensive. Tickets cost around £20 (depending on whether one is a member of a cinema, and some cinemas charge more or less depending on the event), meaning they are out of reach for many people. In addition, they tend to sell out quite early, so people who only hear about them near the time of the broadcast can’t even get tickets.

An article in the Guardian today discusses how well Shakespeare “translates to the small screen,” and suggests that if Will were alive today, he might be a show runner. This article discusses not just theater being filmed, but also other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, such as the recent Hollow Crown series of history plays, and the forthcoming King Lear, with Anthony Hopkins leading a constellation of stars.

But why not just film more plays in the theater and broadcast them on TV? The BBC being a public broadcaster could make these broadcasts more frequent than the few times a year, and they could range from Shakespeare to comedies, from musicals to popular theater. After all, theater companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company receive a fair amount of public money; why can’t they give back with some of their existing films so the general public can see theater in their homes?

While the RSC releases DVDs and Blu-Rays of their filmed productions, so anyone can buy them, and, presumably, libraries can stock them to loan, the NT Live productions sit gathering virtual dust in an archive. None of them are released on disc, and the only way anyone can view them is to visit the National Theatre’s archive, which isn’t very practical for anyone outside of London.

The quality of these filmed productions is impeccable; there’s a great deal of know-how and technique that has been developed in recent years, so these films aren’t just a couple of cameras switching between long views and close-ups, but are rather well choreographed presentations of the plays. They make theater come to life in a way that, while different from being physically present, is still powerful. As a regular theater-goer – often selecting front row seats to be as immersed as possible – the films are certainly different, but they are their own from of production, which can be often as good as being in the theater. (Better, if all you can get are the cheap seats.)

The main question for theaters is whether these live broadcasts cannibalize ticket sales. With the current RSC production of Macbeth being broadcast to cinemas on April 11, it’s clear that this is not the case. The production, starring Christophe Eccleston, is sold out for its entire run through September in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for its shorter run in London. Quite the contrary; it seems that, in many cases, these broadcasts get more people interested in the theater, potentially selling more tickets to the actual productions. The National Theatre had a revival of Amadeus last year, and this was so popular that they’ve brought it back again this year. The NT Live broadcast certainly didn’t reduce the demand for tickets, and may have actually helped sell more.

In the end, it’s about providing TV audiences with a variety of programming. There’s plenty of low-brow fare: weekend comedies, soap operas, reality shows, murder mysteries, and the like. Would it be that hard to broadcast, say, one filmed play a month? It’s certainly not a question of cost; it’s much less expensive to film a stage production than it is to reproduce the same play in a studio or on location, or to shoot a TV movie. The technology exists, is widely used, and there are production companies who have a great deal of experience. It’s probably more a question of the BBC not wanting to seem “elitist,” as if presenting theater on TV would be a bad thing.

As a regular attendee of theater productions, I would welcome this. I would love to see not only the NT Live and RSC productions on TV, or productions like this Hamlet, but also original productions from smaller theaters. Let the TV watching public discover the riches of theater in the UK.

Theater Review: Macbeth, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Given the price of theater tickets, it’s not uncommon to depend on reviews to help make your decisions. In my case, living just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, I get tickets for all the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Shakespeare plays, and many, if not most, of the other plays they perform. (Though after having been disappointed by a number of plays in the Swan Theatre, where they present works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as recent plays, I’ve decided to sit out a number of them.) Many people trust the opinions of theater critics, perhaps more so than, say, movie or book critics, because of that cost.

But we buy tickets well in advance in order to get good seats, and often all we know about a play is who is directing it; in some cases, we know who the lead actors are. With the current Macbeth, which opened this week, the play was announced (if I recall correctly) last September, with tickets sold starting in October, so we essentially trust the RSC to put on good productions.

And this one is essentially sold out; you may find the occasional return, but the draw of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth was enough to provide the best sales the RSC has had, most likely, since another ex Doctor Who (David Tennant) played Richard II in 2013.

When previews started for Macbeth, I heard some distressing comments from some RSC-loving acquaintances: people who are generally upbeat about all RSC productions were very down on this play. Some greatly disliked it, and others felt it was weak overall. The press hasn’t been very kind; press night was Tuesday, and good reviews are scarce, with the majority coming in – on the standard scale of five stars – at two or three stars. I don’t recall seeing so many negative reviews of an RSC show since the 2016 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

At the same time, the National Theatre in London is running its own Macbeth (it turns out the play is on the GCSE curriculum in the UK this year, which explains why there were so many teenagers in school uniforms at the theater last night) which has also been savaged.

Of the four big plays – the others being Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello – this one is my least favorite. I’ve often found it a bit confusing, and it’s a very subtle balance to get a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that work well together. For example, a version with Kenneth Branagh that was broadcast to cinemas in 2013 was visceral and powerful, but I didn’t care for Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth (curiously, another Doctor Who alumnus).

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Shakespeare, Off the Cuff – The New Yorker

The following are recently discovered quotes from interviews that William Shakespeare conducted while promoting various plays, in which he speaks candidly about writing, life, love, and even battling the common cold.

Okay.

“We don’t call it Stratford-Upon-Avon. We just say ‘Stratford.’ I don’t know why anyone would think we’d get so technical. It’s like saying ‘Manhattan of New York.’ ”

He’s right. I live just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, and no-one here calls it by that name, unless they’re reciting their address. However, since there’s a Stratford in London, if you are in the capital, and you say “I’m going to Stratford,” it would be interpreted as that local area.

Curiously, the town is Stratford-upon-Avon, but the district – the larger area around Stratford for administrative and representative purposes – is Stratford-on-Avon.

Oh, and they don’t capitalize the “upon” or “on,” so the New Yorker made a small mistake there.

And you wouldn’t say Manhattan of New York, you’d say, Manhattan-on-Hudson. There are towns with names like that (Hastings-on-Hudson, for example), so the humor kind of falls flat.

Whatevs.

Source: Shakespeare, Off the Cuff | The New Yorker

The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough. – Slate

The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.

Yep.

It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre–superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies–give it a B or B-plus.

I’ve been reviewing stuff for more than two decades: music, books, software, hardware, theater, and more. If something is really crap, I generally don’t bother writing a review. But I’ve spent my time trying it out; time that is unpaid. Occasionally – just very occasionally – I’ve published bad reviews, and they are intended as warnings to the public who might be interested in purchasing the item in question.

One such example is this 2006 review of Sting’s album of songs by John Dowland, one of my favorite Renaissance composers. I said:

Next is Flow My Tears, based on the melody from Dowland’s “hit” instrumental, Lachrimae. Stings sounds like a mediocre singer in a shower. His voice is terrible, his tone is slightly off, and it makes me want to howl at the moon. He basically massacres this song – though you don’t hear him gasping any more – and his braying is a sorry sound indeed.

But, I also concluded the review saying this:

Now, I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting’s performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. Shakespeare scholars, for example, have shown that no Shakespeare play was met with the same awe and respect that we modern theatre-goers show; it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels. Well, all but the part with the processed voices.

Here’s another record I panned, which earned me an angry email from the musician question. My criticism was his questionable choice of tempo:

The liner notes mention something curious that motivated the guitarist’s playing. He “tried to keep an ideal ‘tactus’, that of my heartbeat at rest (53 on the metronome) throughout the Variations.” This is one of the most questionable reasons to record at a given tempo that I can imagine. Whatever motivated this odd decision certainly ruined this recording.

I ended that review saying:

It’s rare that I hear a recording that is this lugubrious and disappointing. I strongly suggest avoiding this disc.

Source: The reviewer’s fallacy: when critics aren’t critical enough.