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26 June 2009 posted by John Wyver

So how was it for you? I don't know if this was the case across the country -- and the world -- but at the Clapham Picturehouse the start of the NT Live HD transmission of Phèdre was, well, a fiasco. As we came into the auditorium there was a static card on screen announcing the joys of various bits of Well and good, but not when this image stayed there throughout the 15 minute intro to the presentation. We could hear the (rather uninspired) audio but the picture was unmoving. As it was right through the first (by my watch) 13 minutes of the production... Not a great start for a ground-breaking stage-to-screen experiment. Really not.

Now I love the Clapham Picturehouse, which I'm happy to acknowledge as my favourite cinema anywhere, but to be honest this wasn't the team's finest hour. Not only was the air conditioning not working in Screen 1, where we were all gathered, but we didn't get any announcements until just before the picture appeared about the problem and what was being done to try to fix it. Apparently there were frantic calls to the NT where 'no one is answering the phones', but somehow there ought to be better systems in place for reporting and getting information about significant failures like this.

When the picture did finally appear (cue applause) the technical aspects of the presentation were fine. Clear, confident camerawork from five cameras with at least one tracking across the front of the stage (and only the occasional mis-cue) was complemented by good sound. It all looked handsome (if a touch over-lit) and played well, but (and maybe this was because of the start) I wasn't overwhelmed -- and after tonight the jury's still out for me as to whether theatre can really work as well as opera in this form.

Phèdre, of course, is a play of declamation. But because the actors were playing as they do each night to the audience in the house (something confirmed by NT director Nick Hytner in the opening radio programme) it came across as shouty and at a single (high) pitch. There were moments when the camerwork really did complement the drama -- such as when Phèdre learns that Hippolytus loves not her but Aricia; the camera was focussed on Helen Mirren's unmoving yet expressive back. But unquestionably because, over the past three weeks of Hamlet, we've been luxuriating in the precision and control that a single-camera shoot can provide, too much felt diffused across wide shots.

My other disappointment was that we were rigorously denied any sense of off-stage action, either from the auditorium or back-stage. The Met Opera presentations get so much of their charge from the strong sense of live-ness that comes from seeing people filter into the house and from the glimpses of the stage manager at work. There was nothing of that here, and it contributed to the slightly flat sense of the evening.

But perhaps all this is just carping. After all, what's not to like about an initiative that brings a strong production to cinemas across the world for, at least in Clapham, just £10 a ticket? I'll be musing on all this some more in the coming days (and responding to the reactions of others) and I'll certainly be back for All's Well That Ends Well in October -- I just hope next time we get to see the show from the start.

Update: Radio 4 has just done a report with vox pop comments from people at Clapham Picturehouse who were unreservedly enthusiastic. Michael Billington is very positive in the Guardian, awarding the experience 5 stars:

... watching it with a rapt, packed house in London's Chelsea Cinema, I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.


Poly Gianniba

25 June 2009 22:15

I am trying to pick up comments on twitter, nobody else has mentioned technical problems so maybe they were confined at Clapham Picturehouse. Bad luck for you but it would be an awful start to the whole project if they had technical problems everywhere. Not having any sense of the audience or the live environment around the performance it's a big mistake. The limitations are obvious but feeling that you are part of the theatre event can make up for it.

Sue Cooke

25 June 2009 22:49

Well. Firstly, let me say, that I do not claim what so ever to be of full knowledge of stage productions! The chatty bit with Jeremy Irons was interesting, in the way that there was no sound! Again, a round of applause commenced when sound did appear! I went with my mum tonight, and we both thought it was "good". Not mind blowing, hit you for six good, just "good". To start with I couldn't connect with the actors because on some scenes I wanted to see the reation of Hippolytes when Theramene was talking to him and vice versa. I managed to get the hang of it as it went along!. It didn't help when I looked at my watch and it was only 7.30pm, oops! But, it did jolly along as it went. The evening was slightly blighted when mum said that the actor Stanley Townsend, who played Theseus, reminded her of the comic Bill Bailey! Nice one mum. She said she just couldn't get that image out of her head and was expecting him to tell a joke! Rrrighttt. I have to put my hand up though and admit that I cried. Yes, real tears, and not from laughter! The scene when Theramene (John Shrapnel) was describing and renacting the death of Hippolytus really got to me. I don't know why, but it did. Probably because that was the only scene that I became "one" with them. I was there and felt the heartbreak of seeing his friend being minced. Minced? Well, he was, wasn't he! But like I've mentioned already, I just couldn't get my head around the camera angles. I understand that doing a live stage production like this must be very, very hard. To try and capture all reactions from the actors on the stage at that one time. When I go and see a live music concert or a production like tonight, seeing what goes on in the side lines is all part of the show. Even when I saw Hamlet last November, the huge glass mirrors moved at one point and I saw people backstage.That's what LIVE means to me. Seeing bits you're not meant to see. Take the night performance of Hamlet that I saw, David Tennant threw the recorder across to (please forgive me folks if I've got his name wrong) Peter De Jersey and he dropped it! It broke, as recorders do, into three pieces. Instead of the performance halting, David Tennant said something along the lines of "That wasn't a very good catch!" in his native Scottish accent! Then, bang, straight back into character. But, I've gone off on a tangent here and got side tracked! Tonight to me, was a little, and I say again, a little bit disappointing. But it was a very brave thing for the NT to try. I'm going to book up and see All's Well That Ends Well by a less known author called, hang on, forgot his name, yep, that's it, Bill Shakespeare. Don't know if you've heard of him at all John, but he is suppose to be quite good and not getting the coverage that he deserves! All in all tonight was an experience that I'm pleased to have witnessed. A good job was done by all, but a few more wide camera shots when two actors were talking to each other would have clinched it for me. Keep blogging John coz you do it so well! All the best. x


25 June 2009 22:52

(Love the title of today's entry) No such technical problems in Newport, South Wales. (I had to travel to Newport as my local arts cinema had sold out. Sadly the Newport Cineword was only about half full) It was advertised to start at 19:00. I arrived at 18:55 and saw the an NT Live advert. Then there was the briefest glimpse of the audience in the NT before the 15 min introduction started - image and audio working fine. More images of the theatre itself, to remind the cinema audience what they were witnessing/a part of would have been welcome. I had no previous knowledge of the play, having run out of time to do any homework other than a flick through the programme, so I didn't know what to expect. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did it feel like I was in a theatre? No Did it feel like I was watching a film? No It was some sort of hybrid of the two - which I suppose it was in reality so that's possibly no surprise. I really missed not being able to scan the stage for the "off camera" acting and reactions, and to look for detail in the set and costumes. It was interesting what you said John about it feeling shouty. I particularly felt this during John Shrapnel's main scene. Am I allowed to accuse him of over-acting? Or is this something that happens when filming live theatre and is not his fault? I thought the picture quality was excellent, and my fear of it potentially being badly lit* was unfounded. *When I say badly lit, I mean lit for theatre, which may not have translated to lit for screen. After reading your comments John, it'll be interesting to find out if the lighting was changed for NT Live. The main dilemma for me was at the applause or not? I took my lead from the rest of the audience, and remained silent. I have a ticket to see All's Well That Ends Well at the theatre in a couple of weeks, but I am tempted to view it through NT Live in October as well to compare the experiences. And I intend to do whatever it takes to get a ticket for The Habit of Art at the theatre as I think that'll be a must-see production - small children will be sacrificed if needs be !


25 June 2009 22:56

Just read Sue's comments that she posted while I typed mine....interesting that we both highlighted the same bit and one of us loved it and one of us hated it. That's theatre for you I guess! Oh and I thought he looked like Bill Bailey too....


25 June 2009 23:50

Well, I'm certainly not a theatre expert, but in my cinema (in the concrete horror that is Stevenage!) there were no technical problems at all, had the talk at the start with Jeremy Irons and a little from some of the actors. We did lose signal for a split second within the first few mins, but really it wasn't a problem and it was literally just a blip. I think the actual nuts and bolts of the cameras and sound worked fine, I was impressed with the different camera angles as I didn't expect so many varied shots. We had a full cinema and most seemed very happy when leaving. I did speak to one lady who was unhappy with the ''background' noise and to be honest there was a point at near the beginning when I thought there was some kind of problem with the air con in the theatre, due to the loud 'humming' in the background. - soon realised it was meant to be there, and I have to admit I found it a little intrusive, which it may not have sounded in the actural theatre itsself. Howver all in all I enjoyed it, and am hoping to make the Alls Well... Performance in Oct if it's shown here.


25 June 2009 23:51

Great to read the blog and comments so far - I'll be back tomorrow to see what else has struck those of you who were there (the various 'theres' involved). I can't help but be suspicious that John has made up the technical hitch at Clapham so as to be able to use his witty title, having thought it up sometime in the last few weeks! No? I'm doing you an injustice? In that case I apologise! :)

Poly Gianniba

26 June 2009 00:17

The Independent has a review of the live transmission as watched in Brixton, with the added bonus of mentioning RSC's Hamlet as the perfect production for that kind of broadcast.


26 June 2009 00:37

I think Hamlet may have lent itsself a broadcast, this is true - would have been nice to see, and I think many others would have agreed. However I would have loved to have seen LLL done for this though, but that is just a pure selfish wish on my behalf - it was so good and think needed more love ;)


26 June 2009 01:33

Hello all... Ok so here's my wee review of tonights broadcast: Firstly Manchester cineworld was completely sold out, not a spare seat to be had. (Actually the member of staff who issued me with my ticket said they could have easily filled another screen such was demand for tickets). No problems with the feed and quite enjoyed the mini interviews with the cast and director. Loved the set with the imposing stone looking as though starting to crumble in places... Meant to reflect the "family" perhaps? Maybe thats just me. Liked the leaves etc on the floor too and that most characters barefoot, made it feel quite intimate and (?) like everyone tiptoeing around on secrets. Was not so keen on the sea/sky line as it basically just looked like a blue screen, though I'm sure this is not the case when you see it in the theatre. The picture quality was fantastic though the sound was at times a little deafening, I guess this is one of the difficulties of transferring the performance in this way. The camera work on the whole I thought was good, alternating between wide shots and close ups. However the close ups eg, of Hippolytus at the beginning with just that "blue screen" behind him felt a little odd. Also with some of the close ups I did miss not being able to see the other characters reactions. However, as there were, in most scenes tonight, ususally only 2/3 people on stage at one time, this was not as pronounced as it might have been in say, Hamlet court scenes where all the action is in the reaction. Some of the other close ups I must say were used to great effect, like showing how rigid Hippolytus was when Phedre admitted her desires but he was just repulsed. I would have probably preferred to see more of the stage and a few more wider angles as all the close ups made it feel far more "filmy" than "stagey" and I was hoping I would feel like I was in the theatre really. Hmm what else?? Cast all superb, though perhaps with the exception of Theseus who at times seemed a little wooden. Is that harsh? Impressed with Dominic Cooper, I always smile when actors known for completely different genres prove they can do serious parts as well, like Kathryn Drysdale in LLL and AMND - very good indeed. On the whole I think a very successful endeavour all things considered. Not perfect but this has after all never been done before. I'd probably give it 7/10 and will definitely be booking for All's Well That End's Well in October. Ps. Sue, totally with you and your mum on the Bill Bailey thing :-)


26 June 2009 06:17

For me and my companions it worked, and we will certainly be back for more if the Finnish distributor decides to show the rest of the series. I don't understand much about camera angles and stuff, but I thought it was beautiful the way the background for an actor's face could change as a scene unfolded. We were not breathing the same air as the actors, but the close-ups brought another kind of intimacy and immediacy -- we were closer to the actors than in a theatre. Of course I have no way of knowing but I have a hunch that comparing NTlive with the Hamlet production is a little like comparing apples and oranges. I imagine what we will see on DVD will be something totally different, and that is the way it should be. I was impressed enough by Phedre to feel that there is room for both. A couple of glitches with sound in Plevna, Tampere - lost it completely for a minute or so when Phedre's son appeared. Annoying. Before the show I was a little worried because there would be no subtitling (I wonder why since they do have subtitles on the operas) but for us it turned out to be fine. I know, though, that some people decided not to go because they didn't trust their English, (And some did not go because the tickets were quite expensive: 25 euros is at least 2,5 times the price of an ordinary cinema ticket.) The 300-seat cinema was only 30-40 % full, which may partly have been because of the weather: after some truly miserable, cold and wet weeks June has finally turned Mediterranean here and as the summer holiday season began last weekend many potential viewers were out of town.

John Wyver

26 June 2009 06:50

Maybe I could just hand over the blog to one of you for a few weeks? These are all really interesting comments, and the different points of view help make the experience so much richer. @ Sue Cooke: I too thought John Shrapnel was very impressive when he was recounting the death of Hippolytus. It's an amazing piece of writing from both Racine and Ted Hughes. And I was certainly caught up by it in a way that was distinct from some of the rest, which I was watching too much from the outside. But I still wan't with his character within the drama -- it was more that I was caught up in a remarkable piece of acting. And I do think this has something to do with him playing to the house and not the camera -- so there was a sense (as K says) of 'over-acting'. I know exactly what you and your Mum mean about the Bill Bailey thing, but that would I guess have been the same in the theatre! @ K: the applause question is interesting. At most of the operas I've been too like this there has been enthusiastic applause at the end (and even in Tristan, some boo-ing, for the camera work). But last night in Clapham the applause was patchy and a little dutiful. I have no problem with applauding in the cinema -- I think it's great when you feel moved or excited along with everyone else, but it didn't quite feel warranted last night.

John Wyver

26 June 2009 06:59

@ Jules: yes, the 'humming', which of course was the sound design for the production, but which I sometimes found intrusive too -- as if the language alone couldn't move our emotions or highlight the great moments of the drama. And I also thought would it have been less noticeable or more appropriate in the theatre, when you would have realised more quickly that it was 'meant'. @ Caroline: just to allay your suspicions about the healine and Clapham, David Benedict on Radio 4 last night also mentioned the technical glitch there, so I promise we all suffered it! :-) @ Laura: I think I agree that 'all the close ups made it feel far more "filmy" than "stagey" and I was hoping I would feel like I was in the theatre really'. It's NOT film (there isn't the precision of shots, the performances are pitched wrongly, etc) and so more acknowledgement of the theatre would have helped. I was surprised we didn't even see the audience at the end during the curtain calls. Like you, 7 out of 10 feels about right. @ Virpi: yes, apples and oranges it is (comparing Hamlet with Phedre), and let's hope that there's room enough for both in the fruit basket.


26 June 2009 07:14

I knew nothing about this initiative until I read about it here, and although the reviews are somewhat discouraging it has prompted me to check out the info on All's Well That Ends Well in October - and it will be shown at my local cinema! Yay! So, John, another thank you is due because, thanks to you, I can look forward to yet another unique experience :)


26 June 2009 08:55

I agree with everyone who felt that there were too many close ups, one of the things you lose with a broadcast such as this is choosing what you look at. My favourite shot of the whole evening was the one which included the audience at the beginning, one of a very few clues that this was indeed a live broadcast. Stratford Picture House was also completely sold out and which was reassuring. There was very little applause at the end. Most of the comments I overheard were about the declamatory delivery which left me, and seemingly quite a lot of other audience members completely cold! I too felt that not enough was made of the backstage elements of the productions, actor interviews are already available on the NT website - it would have been a great opportunity to follow the prep of some of the tech team, I would definitely have preferred that to the bland interviews at the beginning. A good enterprise though and I too will be back for more.


26 June 2009 14:16

Hello, have been lurking since found your blog about Hamlet. Have to say I have enjoyed it thoroughly and all the comments made re the RSC production and the previous productions etc you have been discussing - and I have ordered Macbeth DVD as a result ! Went to see Hamlet and thoroughly enjoyed it, so looking forward to the DVD as all were terrific at Stratford. Been a pilgrim to the RSC for ages and think a lot of productions should be immortalised that I've seen over the years. Antony Sher as Richard 111 for example. or indeed the Tempest this year - fab. I happened to see Roger Rees as Hamlet with a young thing called Kenneth Branagh as Laertes - whatever happened to him - so hope Edward Bennett has the same career path! Phedre good in Glasgow as well, technically. For people at a distance, this was a fabulous way to see these actors and this production for a snip - although it wasn't like being at the theatre, it wasnt exactly like being at the cinema either - interesting effect which I think was increased by the delay in starting and there was a definite sense of people not knowing the ettiquet of being such an audience! do we clap? Overall impressed by the filming few jerky bits or jarring editing, delay in starting play proper was a drag though agree with above that a bit of setting the scene of the theatre would have been much better. Funny thought was that it was the scale ofthe picture that takes it away - seeing the 'actual size' of actors on a stage adds to the humanity and reality somehow.......does that make sense? I will try for tickets to the next one.


26 June 2009 19:30

Thank you everyone : the varying opinions on the show last night are fascinating. The fact that two people comment on the same piece with completely different reactions is what theatre (or any event for that matter), is all about. With regard to the question 'to applaud or not to applaud' : I have been in cinemas watching films which ended with everyone applauding. We have all attended plays where the applause has been 'polite' (this happened at R&J in Ludlow last weekend) and others where standing ovations have spontaneously happened. So I am of the opinion that when a performance touches you, you applaud, regardless of the medium. @Jules - glad you went after all ! It would have been a shame to have missed it when you had tickets :-) @John : does your professional eye get 'in the way' when you watch productions like this? I ask : a) because of your comments about "five cameras with at least one tracking" b) because as a make up artist, I have sometimes got distracted when the make up is awful! Presumably, things will be learned from last night and improved on for the next time - it would be a shame if this idea wasn't developed further. I would love to see it becoming a common event and perhaps broadened to include 'ordinary' cinemas rather than being restricted to art houses. That way, I may stand a better chance of getting my mitts on a ticket!!


27 June 2009 04:37

Sadly, work commitments ended up forcing me to forgo a trip down to the Chinese in Hollywood to see the broadcast there, so I sadly can't say how the screening went there. (Though it would be been a delayed signal as it was at 7PM in the evening our time). While I love a good single camera recording of a production, I'll take a broadcast of a live performance even with the bits that seem shouty over not seeing it at all. And even with camera choices that sometimes less than desirable, a broadcast such as they did with Phedre at least gives one a hint of the quicksilver nature of a live performance. For those of us who are a continent away, this experiment is a chance to see performances we can't travel to see (I'm still paying off the excursion for Hamlet). Hopefully international venues will be included in October as well, because I firmly intend to take the time to make the trek to see the screening.

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