Ghosts of Richards past

Ghosts of Richards past

To Middleham Castle on Saturday evening for a unique ‘performed screening’ of a 1911 silent film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sited in the glorious Yorkshire dales, the impressive castle, now in the care of English Heritage, is strongly associated with time spent there by the late medieval monarch. The film was Frank Benson’s production from his own staging, in which he stars as the wicked king, and which was shot on the stage of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The occasion was a presentation by Silents Now, a group led by Professor Judith Buchanan and based at the University of York, which is dedicated to exploring new ways of bringing audiences to films made before the coming of sound. And the ‘performed’ element was the contribution of the incomparable John Sweeney at the piano and a group of actors who contributed the verse, together with vivid sound effects, in perfect synchronicity with the flickering images. Nestled inside the ruined, spotlit keep and huddled with my family against the cold, I found it rather magical and rather marvellous.
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Shakespeare the sailor man

Shakespeare the sailor man

Many of the world’s most prominent Shakespeare academics are meetings this week in Stratford-upon-Avon for the invite-only International Shakespeare Conference. A highlight of the first day was the screening of Shakespearian Spinach as part of the paper by Professor Peter Holland. This 1940 Paramount animation features Popeye and Olive Oyl as Romeo and Juliet – and it is rather special. Here it is as today’s treat…

Waiting for Webster

Waiting for Webster

Tomorrow, at the final preview before Wednesday’s press night, I get to see a production that I have been looking forward to for simply ages. Maria Aberg is directing John Webster’s The White Devil in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford. So that’s one of the very greatest of all plays by one of the very smartest directors around in perhaps the best auditorium in the world. Excited, moi?

If you need an introduction to the play, the Wikipedia entry is a decent place to start. But in terms of this production, see this interview with Maria Aberg:

There is also a very good interview with Maria. Her production for the RSC of King John in The Swan in 2012 (go here for Peter Kirwan’s review for the Bardathon) is one of the most exciting and challenging productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen in recent years – and I have every hope that her take on Webster is as thrilling. Certainly the great set of production photographs by Keith Pattison that the RSC has just posted online suggests that this will be the case.

The RSC and Dusthouse have made a striking trailer for the show which comes with its parental advisory warning: ‘This trailer contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’.

More later in the week…

Image: Laura Elphinstone as Flaminio in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison, courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company.

Live from Salzburg

Live from Salzburg

To Cinema 1 at the Barbican for a live stream of The Forbidden Zone from the Salzburg Festival. Written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by Katie Mitchell, this new work premiered last Wednesday, plays Salzburg for another week and then goes to the Schaubuhne in Berlin. (A download of the programme in English is available here.) For one night only, and to one screen only, this innovative relay came to the Barbican as a co-commission with 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. Surprising and fascinating it most certainly was, as well as emotionally engaging.

As background, this video from 59 Productions includes rehearsal footage and an interview with Katie Mitchell:

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RSC Live from…, ’71 style

RSC Live from…, ’71 style

Today I went, by appointment, to what they call a carrel in Rare Books and Manuscripts at The British Library. My carrel was a little room with a glass wall, rather fierce air-conditioning and some headphones. An immensely helpful librarian explained that I should put on the headphones and she would start the playback I had requested. There had been, she admitted, a bit of a panic earlier when they discovered that the tape had been recorded more than forty years ago on a reel-to-reel machine at a very eccentric speed. But all was well. So I closed my eyes, opened my ears, and was transported back to the Aldwych Theatre on the evening of 2 January 1971. Playing out in my head was an ‘as live’ recording of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
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Stage to screen, the story continues

Stage to screen, the story continues

Discussions about adapting stage plays for the screen, whether broadcast live or recorded ‘as live’, have moved on apace over the past couple of months. There have also been a number of further cinema broadcasts, including a successful presentation by NT Live of David Hare’s Skylight, of which Encore screenings are continuing. Below are some recent readings about this question.

Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screen: this Michael Billington Guardian piece (18 June 2014) is something of a game-changer:

I went this week to a preview of Digital Theatre‘s screen version of Richard Eyre’s Almeida production of Ibsen’s Ghosts: I can only say that it offered an experience comparable to that I had in the theatre… while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity.

• Sir Alan Ayckbourn voices fears over theatre screenings: the playwright offers a note of scepticism; from BBC online, 11 June 2014.

NESTA research finds that National Theatre Live has no negative impact on regional theatre-going: outline from The Audience Agency on the research undertaken with NESTA; 25 June 2014.

• Research finds that National Theatre Live has no negative impact on regional theatre-going: this is NESTA’s press release; 24 June 2014…

NESTA Working Paper 14/04: … and this is a download of the report in full.

How live cinema screenings can help boost live arts audiences: Arts Council Chair Peter Bazalgette adds his gloss to the research; from the Independent, 30 July 2014.

New work needs to be done before cinema broadcasts bring new audiences to opera: the focus is different, but this English Touring Opera research is also a valuable contribution to the debates; this is their 27 May 2014 blog piece…

English Touring Opera – Opera in cinemas research: … and this is a download of the paper in full.

The bitter taste of live screening: Elizabeth Freestone raises some important questions about live cinema broadcasts; from Arts Professional, 5 June 2014.

Coney’s no island – could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots?: Andrew Haydon for the Guardian on Coney’s interactive theatre experiment Better than Life; 1 July 2014.

Of Mice and Men to be National Theatre’s first live Broadway screening: meanwhile, NT Live is expanding its geographical reach to take in a New York show; this is the BBC’s 25 July news report. Screening dates for the ‘as live’ recording have still to be announced.

The next RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast is Simon Godwin’s sparkling and totally delightful production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September; details here.

Back to the tavern

Back to the tavern

If it’s Wednesday, it must be the live broadcast day of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast of Henry IV Part II. We’re back at the Boar’s Head tavern, which is where Falstaff, Hal and the company acted out the banishment of the fat knight in Part I (below). Prepare to have your hearts broken tonight…

Screen Plays’ Theatre on TV conference

Screen Plays’ Theatre on TV conference

Regular readers will know that I am involved with the Screen Plays research project, based at the University of Westminster and generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project is documenting the history of theatre plays on British television and early next year will publish a database of information about all three thousand-plus television productions of plays originally written for the theatre. Screen Plays has just announced the call for proposals for its concluding conference in London on 20 February 2015, and that seemed like an appropriate prompt for a handful of links about the topic.

The Screen Plays blog

• Call for proposals – Theatre and Television: Adaptation, Production, Performance

Last month Screen Plays organised a successful BFI Southbank season, Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen, which was accompanied by a half-day symposium.

Introduction to the season

My Guardian article about television productions of the plays of Bernard Shaw (above).

• Dr Billy Smart’s symposium keynote, Edwardian values, 1970s television: John Galsworthy on BBC1

Notes from the symposium

Associated with the Screen Plays project is the Illuminations DVD release of the 1960 BBC cycle of Shakespeare History plays, An Age of Kings (above). Details of the DVD box set are here, the 10 5-star Amazon readers’ reviews are here, and this is one of the trailers that we have produced for the release:

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon for today’s first camera rehearsal for the RSC’s live cinema presentation of Henry IV Part II on 18 June. One of the things that frustrates me about these broadcasts is that they rarely get reviewed or discussed as examples of live cinema. Part I on 14 May, however, attracted at least three substantial responses – from the Birmingham Post, from the blog But madnorthnorthwest and from academic Dr Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

Richard Edmonds’ 5-star review for the Birmingham Post:

 [I]n this skilful filming of the play not a word was missed, articulation was nigh perfect, the ends of lines were not dropped and so we heard our Shakespeare clearly which is surely the point of the exercise. The other great thing which a seat in the stalls cannot give us, is the intimate close-up. In the film of the play such as this, you can see the pores on an actor’s skin, almost feel his emotional suffering as the camera closes in on his eyes, and you can see the work of the costume department in detail.

 • The blog Butmadnorthnorthwest:

After the successful broadcast of Richard II last year, the RSC is now continuing with Henry IV (part 2 follows in June). Started off with a charming and informative interview of Gregory Doran (NTL, you might want to take notes of how these are done. Kudos to Suzy Klein.) who admitted having unsucessfully looked for his Falstaff until Ian McKellen called his attention to the fact he was actually living with him.

Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

This was the first of the ‘Live From Stratford-upon-Avon’ events that I’ve attended, the live screenings from Stratford modelled on the NT Live series that will, hopefully, by 2020 see the complete works of Shakespeare broadcast internationally from the RSC’s main stage. If the RSC wishes to remain competitive in a new market then it’s a necessary step, and it was a pleasure to see John Wyver’s team doing an extraordinary job with the filming. Despite the obvious awkwardness of filming a production performed on a thrust stage, cameras captured the fine detail that characterises Doran’s work, from the apparently suspended crown which dominated the stage at the production’s opening to the detail of Falstaff’s reaction to his dismissal by Hal.

I would be delighted to learn of any other detailed reviews, whether positive or negative.

PS. for the rationale for my new approach to the blog, go here.

Live-blogging The Duchess of Malfi

Live-blogging The Duchess of Malfi

22:26: Hmmm. Really interesting to see, but definitely problematic. Final production credit is Globe on Screen in association with BBC Arts.

22:23: I didn’t think this closing worked in the theatre, and the broadcast hasn’t changed my mind.

22:22: At two and a half hours, this is a lot of television – and length is one of the key problems with theatre on television, at least as far as the executives are concerned. I wonder what the figures are – which we’ll learn tomorrow.

22:20: via @scottpalmerx


22:13: Yet so few of the great lines really land, although I’m more inclined to lay this at the inadequacies of the stage production, rather than the problems of translating to the screen.

22:11: Although I’m tired now,the drama is working more effectively, at times gripping and involving.

22:08: Was this, I wonder, recorded at a single performance? I have now become distracted by trying to work out whether the audience is precisely consistent across all of the shots. It seems to me that there is a woman in a white jacket stage left in the back row of the first gallery who is sometimes there and sometimes not.

22:00: I really, really think theatre on television can be more effective than this. A production with more sense of scale and difference, and with more subtlety, is needed. And the possibility of doing more with the images, more light and shade, more movement, more responsiveness to the drama.

21:31: Darkness on stage means that we don’t see the audience and the few candles give direction and shape and focus.

21:29: via @polyg


21:25 Oh, it really is black! Totally! You don’t often ‘see’ that on television.

21:23: Starting the second part and the single candles in the dark create striking Caravaggio-like effects.

21:20: Interval, with Andrew Marr offering a re-cap – and an odd kind of trailer with ‘highlights’ of Acts 4 and 5. ‘A word of warning – the play is about to get darker, literally… Your screen will go black. IT WILL GO BLACK.’ We’re away from the action for less than two minutes.

21:18: I’m sorry, but this confirms what I thought in the theatre: Gemma Arterton simply isn’t a Duchess of Malfi.

21:07: But overall I fear it’s not ‘working’ on screen as well as I would wish – if, that is, we want to see more theatre on television. If this is regarded as less than a success then it will be too easy for those who don’t want to see further productions to point to this and suggest that the form is inappropriate for the small screen. But I don’t believe that, and I want to understand why this is much less satisfying than a NT Live or Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast to cinemas. Can the weaknesses be blamed on the stage production? Or is doing this from the tiny space of the Playhouse deeply problematic?

21:00: Maybe it’s David Dawson as Ferdinand, or perhaps it’s because we’re moving from comedy to tragedy, or towards the dark, but it feels as if it’s working more effectively now.

20:48: The tone of contemporary comedy really isn’t to my taste. Apart from anything else, I feel it sometimes works against the beauty of the language.

20:43: Much as with the recordings made in the main Globe, the audience is very present here. I find this distracting, making it hard to stay “in” the world and time of the play. Instead, I am constantly distracted by the expressions of those watching. I know that it is crucial for screen versions of stage performances to include the audience but perhaps this needs to be general, distanced, shaded, non-specific, rather than with the particularities of contemporary life.

20:41: The sound is very clean and clear, but like the illumination very even, with little sense of space and perspective.

20:39: Many of the close shots with hand-held candles look very strong, but in the wides a lot of general light seems to spill across the stage in this nighttime scene.

20:30: Anyone attracted by the facile comparison with Tarantino must be feeling a bit bemused by now…

20:24: Not only does it lack shading in the images but also in performances. The Duchess and Antonio together is a gorgeous love scene but is being played as over-pitched comedy. What I can’t quite work is what effect the transfer to the screen is having on what I think lacked subtlety on stage.

20:22: The light is very even across the figures, with no sense of direction from which it is coming. No shadows.

20:18: When I saw this in the theatre I felt too many of the performances were rather one-note, and I again feel that’s the case.

20:14: The image so far is very bright and sharp, with the precision of video rather than any kind of film ‘look’. Some of the cameras have very wide-angle lenses.

20:10: Cameras looking at stage from the front and side, and also shooting from the stalls gallery up-stage through the cast and out into the audience. No movement, at least so far; all the visual story-telling coming from the mix/edit, not from developing shots in any way. This presumably because the space is just too small for tracks.

20:05: Among others you might want to follow along with is @DrPeteKirwin.


20:04: A three-minute intro and we’re into the action.

20:03: ‘John Webster was the Quentin Tarantino of the old English theatre.’ Hmmm.

20:00: Andrew Marr welcome us to ‘the televising of a spanking new production…’ Introduction to the Playhouse and the candles, costing £400 per show. ‘Now it’s bold and perhaps crackers to be attempting television by candlelight.’

19:59: Voice-over trail describes the imminent broadcast as ‘Dominic Dromgoole and Ian Russell’s production’; theatre credit and broadcast credit given equal billing.

19:51: I was a huge fan of the 2012 Old Vic production with Eve Best and I greatly admire the 1972 BBC television production with Eileen Atkins directed by James MacTaggart. My detailed Screen Plays blog post about the latter is here.

19:49: I should say that I saw an early preview of this production – and was, to be frank, disappointed with it. Gemma Arterton, while sparkling in the early scenes, did not for me have the tragic range that the role requires. But I’m not sure my critical faculties were at their most acute, given how unbelievably uncomfortable was my £45 pit seat. Tonight, the broadcast is just one element of what I get for my licence fee – and my sofa has soft cushions and a back against I can lean.

19:43: There does feel as if there is a bit of a sense of occasion about tonight, as indeed there should be. This is – I believe – the first television broadcast of a classic stage production from the theatre for which it was created for more than a decade. We have to go back to the early days of BBC Four for the last one, which I think was a close-to-unwatchable Three Sisters. Since then, of course, theatre on screen has been transformed by NT Live, Digital Theatre, RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon and others, but television has stood aloof. Now with a new commitment to performance from DG Tony Hall, this is the opening offering from what may become an important series of such broadcasts.

19:34: … and here are a couple of my earlier posts about #Malfi (my preferred hashtag for the night): Off-message and on- with Malfi and Malfi light and noir.

19:28: … and another, an Adam Sherwin news piece for the Independent, ‘Gemma Arterton says live theatre should be experienced on stage not screen relays’: ‘To be quite honest, I don’t really believe in filming theatre, that’s not what it’s about. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact they were filming it at first – it’s theatre, you’re not performing it for the cameras.’

19:26: One piece of prep – The Duchess of Malfi – BBC Arts at the Globe is the Radio Times preview piece, illustrated with a fetching photo of Andrew Marr; buried in there is this warning, ‘The tiny, historically accurate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a more interesting place to visit than watch.’

19:09: Blogging along with a television broadcast is, I know, so 2008 – and I will also be keeping an eye of Twitter – but I want to try to record my (non-snarky) thoughts about tonight’s recording of The Duchess of Malfi from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The BBC Four broadcast starts at 8pm, but in the meantime, take a look at my thoughts about the James Shapiro curtain-raiser documentary that was last night on BBC Two and is playing out again now on BBC Four.