On Sunday afternoon Beware of Pity, an adaptation of a Stefan Zweig novel created by Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin, was live-streamed from the stage of London’s Barbican. The much-praised show sold out its theatre performances but along with around 1400 others looking in on the YouTube page, I happily watched the feed on my laptop at home. I was delighted to do so, although the experience felt somewhat reduced, at least when compared with viewing a full-blown, fully resourced live broadcast of a theatre show in a cinema.
As this perhaps suggests, I want to offer some comparative points about the Beware of Pity stream and the live broadcasts that I produce for the RSC and that NT Live similarly takes out into the world. I am going to be critical about aspects of yesterday’s stream, although I hope in a supportive way. I’m cautious about doing this, not least because I recognise the budget disparities between the approaches, but also because I don’t want simply to appear to be justifying my practice and that of the RSC. And pleasingly you can make up your own mind, since the stream recording remains online until Sunday 26 February.
I feel strongly, however, that we need to develop a more detailed and rigorous debate about the aesthetics of screen versions of theatre shows. We need a far more considered critical practice, and strands of that should be informed by the understandings of those involved in their production. Without this, there is the danger that theatre-on-screen will be discussed and understood – and perhaps dismissed – as a singular, homogenous practice, and in the medium terms this will be damaging not only to this rapidly developing hybrid form but also to the engagement with it of makers, funders and audiences.
Sunday’s stream appeared to have been a live mix from three operated cameras together with a fourth that was perhaps fixed to the front of the circle, that offered an unchanging wide shot of the full stage. Two of the cameras with human operators seemed to have been set in the auditorium on the central axis at a right-angle to the stage. The third was also set back in the stalls but at stage left, offering an angled shot onto the action.
Either because of technical limitations imposed by the lenses or because of the choices made by the screen director Will Hanke (and probably a bit of both) much of the show was presented in long-shot or mid-shot, and there was only a modest deployment of closer shots – and even these kept the bottom of the frame across a character’s chest.
The majority of the cuts were between the three cameras more or less on the line perpendicular to the stage, with the frame tightening or loosening on the same subject. I don’t think there was any use of zooms, nor apart from some almost indiscernible lateral pans was there any camera movement. All of which meant that what we saw at home presented the production but not that the cameras and cuts contributed to the story-telling.
The ‘coverage’ or the ‘capture’ of Beware of Pity was not as austere as the cinema presentation from Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Fiery Angel of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. In that case, a single camera hung above the stalls stared unblinkingly at the stage with a continuous, barely changing shot for the first half, and then similarly for the second half. As I watched the stream from the Barbican I recognised that certain shot changes were made to emphasise certain points and to provide closer views of significant actions.
But what the Barbican stream did not do – as I would argue the best cinema broadcasts do – is draw me into the action, involve me emotionally in the characters’ exchanges, make me feel their dilemmas and disturbances, their excitement and their despair. It was if yesterday’s stream was describing to me what was on stage and not inviting me to be a part of it.
The overall effect was underlined by the, for me, eccentric decision to use a 2.35:1 frame ratio for the stream, rather than the more usual 16:9. What this meant is that the image was in a widescreen format, with a dark bar that was empty above and carried the English subtitles (translated from the spoken German) below. Everything was literally in wide shot, and even when the camera came in closer there was still much to a figure’s left and right that stayed obdurately empty. On occasions, a two-shot or a grouping made more productive use of the frame, but I felt that on balance a 16:9 frame would have served the show more fruitfully.
Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the outcomes of all this was that the skilful, dense audio mix, presumably created for the stage since the cast were wearing visible microphones, carried much of the emotional affect of the drama. Complicite and director Simon McBurney are brilliant manipulators of audio, as their previous Barbican show The Encounter demonstrated, and it was the sounds from the stage that made me feel on Sunday and not the pictures.
There are those who prefer the distancing effect that I am ascribing to the Beware of Pity stream, who believe that the what’s called the ‘tyranny’ of the camera’s gaze as guided by a (moderately) interventionist screen director is unwelcome. They argue that seeing the whole stage for much or even all of the time is both a closer analogue to the experience of being seated in the theatre and is also in some way more democratic.
Against this, I argue that what a sympathetic screen director does, by scripting shots carefully in advance and making the cameras participants, is enhance the effects and the story-telling power of a stage production. The screen director should respond to and extend the many subtle ways a theatre director and a cast themselves shift and play with an audience’s attention, sometimes demanding (the equivalent of) a close-up and sometimes offering up an epic wide shot.
Yet the debate about theatre on screen rarely makes such distinctions between approaches, and even more rarely tries to tease out the specific contributions of particular screen directors or camera teams. Only very occasionally are individual shots and sequences considered along the ways in which they may have enhanced a stage production’s impact and contributed to its available meanings. That is the kind of attention and focus and critique that I believe is lacking in the discussions of this nexus of concerns.
Needless to say, these issues are deeply implicated in frameworks of funding. I don’t know what the Beware of Pity stream cost but I am certain that a cinema broadcast from the South Bank or Stratford-upon-Avon is standardly several multiples of that. If funding is constrained (as it always is) is it better that a lower-budget, less ambitious and more distanced stream is made available – especially if it is free – than not? Of course. Unquestionably.
What is not productive, however, is a failure to recognise the differences between this and what, thrillingly and thankfully, is possible in other contexts. And if the differences are not acknowledged then not only will the world expect the achievements of the latter for the much lower budget of the former, but also we will not be able to talk together in an informed way about how to improve and take forward theatre played upon a screen.