You will have noticed that I have not been blogging much over the past two months. I have been planning posts, writing parts of them in my head, even jotting down drafts. There is one that I want to offer (and may well still) about listening to the audiobook of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. I should also draw together my ideas about my visit to Les Rencontres d’Arles for photography exhibitions. Until an hour or so ago, however, I wasn’t going to mention the talk about filming Shakespeare that I contributed on Saturday to the Whitstable Biennale. In large part, I thought that I had written here all that I spoke there. But then Alice Hattrick’s blog about the event appears and she says much of the presentation was ‘a bit boring’. Which brought me straight back here – not (I hope) prompted by defensiveness, but because she makes some interesting points that I want to work through.
Before you read on, take a look at Alice’s post, John Wyver’s versions, on Whitstable Biennale Live.
Alice has been part of the MA in Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, which is taught in part by the artist Jeremy Millar, who invited me (back) to Whitstable (I have also done classes for the MA students). I clearly did not make it sufficiently clear on Saturday that I lived in the town for my first seventeen years (Alice thinks I only visited there back in the 1960s), but that’s by the by.
My presentation explored some aspects of producing our two screen versions of Macbeth (2001 and 2010), Hamlet (2009) and the recent Julius Caesar. As context, I also spoke about the history of stage plays on television and the current projects presenting stage plays on the screen beyond television, including NT Live. Alice is not a fan of NT Live.
I deride projects like NT Live. And I think I’ve gotten into trouble with him [that’s me] before about this. It doesn’t engage with cinema, its languages, spaces of experience and temporalities, specific habits and histories; there is no attempt at establishing a new hybrid form. Theatre and cinema could transform each other.
Well, maybe one version of that ‘new hybrid form’ is what the Illuminations ‘screened plays’ are struggling towards – and Alice is kind enough to recognise this, as she describes our productions as ‘a new tradition, which could be described as a merging of two kinds of world-making, theatre and film, live performance and screen cinematography.’
The tricky thing is that the elements that seem so important to me – budgets. locations, talents – are ‘a bit boring’ for Alice. But they seem just the opposite to me, precisely because they are defining for what reaches for the screen, and for what is then available for each audience member to make her or his own imagined ‘version’.
But here’s the bit that really made me think:
The process of making is what concerns him [that’s me], because it’s a struggle, a battle. The value of the screen version is, or so it seems, based on having made it at all.
And then this:
The reason for continuing to produce “screen versions” of Shakespeare plays cannot be purely reactionary, but this is his [my] narrative; against all odds, they have been made in the face of dire commissioning contexts of past decades, audiences satisfied.
Hmm. It’s true, of course, it has been difficult to make these productions, but as my co-producing colleague Seb Grant and I constantly remind ourselves, ‘nothing’s easy’. And perhaps I do have a tendency to cast the story of these productions as an against-the-odds narrative. It may be that my Hamlet blog was the ur-text for this, and the relative success of those posts (not least in prompting director Rupert Goold to ask us to work with him on Macbeth) has shaped too strongly how I talk about all this.
The more I think about this critique, the more I recognise that it is a very useful note for future presentations. I am going to give a version of this presentation at Caltech later this autumn, and I’ll aim to accentuate the positives, explore the ideas – and discard some of the discussion of the obstacles. Alice’s suggestion of what the productions might do is indeed a key part of the aspiration:
Perhaps John’s aim is to offer up a space in which a hybrid, malleable form can be developed and explored, a form yet to be wholly defined, its language decided.
Even so, I clearly have some way to go.
John’s moments of reflection are reserved for warranted self-congratulation, but when you’re inside something, right at the middle, it’s hard to see the boundaries, let alone assess it from the outside.
Well, maybe. On the other hand, there is strikingly little critical dialogue about the questions that pre-occupy me. I always hope that this blog and the talks I do, not to mention the productions themselves, will prompt more than they do. Which is precisely why I’ve returned to post again after a month – and why I’ll do my best to return to some kind of blogging regularity.