Whitstable times

18th September 2012

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.


  1. Helene says:

    Living in the US, I’ve never had the opportunity to see an NT Live production, so I can’t say if the quality of those productions are good or poor. But I have to wince when Alice Hattrick (negatively) says, “These projects seem more like commercial enterprises; they appeal to the audience (more expensive than a cinema ticket, less expensive than a trip to New York etc.), and, most depressingly, to cinemas.”

    I ask: Since when does appealing to an audience and being a commercial enterprise become an example of bad entertainment?!

    I think a project can be filmed in different ways, in different settings and in a different timeframe, yet still be a quality production in spite of it appealing to a wide audience and being created to make money for producers, directors, actors, etc.

    I think we start sliding down a slippery slope if we diminish the relevance of the masses.

  2. Paul Tickell says:

    The audience for NT Live is hardly ‘the masses’; and anyway as Sartre put it: the work should create the audience rather than the dictates of the audience creating the work.

  3. Luke McKernan says:

    Gee, now wonder you were provoked into a reaction. “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.” Why? What a completely fallacious argument. Theatre might engage with cinema (or vice versa), and the results can be engaging – but to suggest that there is an obligation for one to learn from the other is a nonsense. If it works it works, and NT Live works.

  4. Luke McKernan says:

    Lovely to see the Whitstable railway station sign by the way (I spent my formative seventeen years there too).

  5. John Wyver says:

    Thanks, Luke – you are also probably one of the very few people in the world who will recognise the reference in the post’s title. (For everyone else, the local weekly paper is called ‘The Whitstable Times’.)

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