‘Cymbeline’, now and then

27th May 2019

John Wyver writes: The past week was occupied by a hugely enjoyable and completely fascinating research collaboration with director and tutor Ben Naylor, his colleagues and students on the MA Acting, Classical course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

I have long been fascinated by pre-war television drama, all of which was transmitted live and of which we have no recordings. But we do have documentation, including the very basic camera scripts for some of the first productions, one of which was a November 1937 broadcast of Scenes from Cymbeline. What we set out to do at Central last week was – in a limited way – to ‘re-stage’ this presentation, interrogating what we know about the broadcast, and how we know that, and to apply that to create a digital recording that can – perhaps – give us a visual sense of the first television dramas.

In the future I’ll reflect further here on this as a research project, and later perhaps in a conference presentation and/or an academic journal article. But by way of an introduction here is a short description of what we achieved, along with expressions of gratitude for all those who helped realise the broadcast.

Scenes from Cymbeline in 1937

The first television broadcasts of Shakespeare were of short scenes from As You Like It and Henry V on 5 February 1937, just over three months after the start of the BBC’s limited service from Alexandra Palace. Many of the first television dramas involved bringing the cast of a current West End show to AP and, after minimal rehearsals, playing a selection of scenes in front of two or three studio cameras. These live broadcasts were often presented twice in the same day, in the afternoon and then repeated (that is, played again) in the evening. Which was the case with the broadcasts at 3.30pm and 9.30pm of Scenes from Cymbeline on 29 November 1937, when nine actors from André van Gyseghem’s production of Shakespeare’s play played six scenes from the first and second acts.

Van Gyseghem’s staging, which had opened earlier that month at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, was notable for being the first professional production to use George Bernard Shaw’s re-written text for the notoriously hard-to-play Act 5. This attracted notice from the press of the time but it did little to prevent some harsh reviews, with The Stage on 17 November reflecting that

Viewed from the point of view of a Shakespearean production the performance is poor. All but a few of the actors proved unable to speak blank verse clearly. The dresses are an extraordinary mixture of ancient British, ancient Roman and Elizabethan, while the colour schemes are for the most part crude and ill arranged.

BBC Television, however, was happy to show whatever theatre it could coax in front of the cameras, and in fact the broadcast was rewarded by a line of praise from the critic “E.H.R.” writing in The Observer on 5 December 1937:

The stage was well represented [during the past week on television] by scenes from the Embassy Theatre production of Cymbeline [and two other dramas]. In all three a high standard of production was maintained.

Seemingly, we have nothing more describing the broadcast, and certainly no images or film records from AP, but the BBC Written Archives at Caversham holds a slim production file. This contains a precious typed camera script for the broadcast, which along with Shakespeare’s text features instructions for when there were ‘mixes’ from one camera to another. There is no floor plan, as there is for other productions of the time, and little else, but this seemed enough, when combined with more general information that was known about early drama broadcasts, to attempt some kind of reconstruction.

Cymbeline in 2019

In April at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Ben Naylor and Anna Healey co-directed a clear and compelling production of Cymbeline, King of Britain with their MA Acting, Classical students in Central’s recently opened Courtyard Theatre. Ben and I had been talking about a possible workshop on broadcasting theatre performance, and it became clear that this production could provide a focus for re-staging the 1937 broadcast. This seemed all the more potent as an idea because Central is built around the Embassy Theatre, where van Gyseghem’s production was staged. Central’s new North Block building has a well-equipped media production studio, and this was generously made available to us last week.

On the first day the main element of Lizzy Leech’s set for Ben and Anna’s stage production was assembled in the studio. Lighting associate Sam Thomas, also just completing his studies at Central, worked with my colleague David Gopsill (who collaborates with me on the RSC live broadcasts) to create a lighting plot. With Ben and Anna, and with the students, we then worked for two days recording with three cameras the six scenes that had been played for television in 1937 but as staged for the recent production.

On Thursday and Friday, with a mostly different group of students and the same set, but with new costumes wonderfully conjured up from Central’s store by Lizzy, we endeavoured to ‘re-stage’ and record – using only two cameras for each scene – the six elements from acts 1 and 2 as they might have been before the cameras over 80 years ago.

We studied images of studio production from the late 1930s to get a sense of how television dramas were blocked and lit. We sought advice on how to replicate, at least partially, the capabilities of the Emitron cameras of the time, with a 5:4 aspect ratio, fixed lens and narrow angle of vision. And Ben and Anna explored approaches to performance styles for Shakespeare in the 1930s. Of course we were working with contemporary digital cameras, creating 1080-line HD images in colour, and recording in-camera and not live mixing. But our post-production process can get us some way towards the milky, monochrome 405-line pictures of early television, as well as what will almost certainly appear to be a strange screen grammar with lengthy shots and image changes that take up to 4 seconds.

I learned an enormous amount from the process, but all this now needs reflection and rumination. We also have a significant editing task to assemble the 2019 scenes and to replicate the limited live mixing from 1937. So watch this space for further thoughts and news about possible screenings or presentations.

In the meantime, I want to express profound thanks to Ben Naylor, Anna Healey, Lizzy Leech and Sam Thomas at Central, as well as the technical team there, including Ken Mizutani and David Ripley. Special thanks to David Gopsill and my Illuminations collaborator Todd MacDonald, for amazing assistance with cameras, lighting and much more, and to camera operator Phil Cooper and sound recordists George Watts and Artur Strakhov. For essential advice and guidance on technical matters, thanks to the scholar and historian Don McLean and to Simon Vaughan who runs the invaluable Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Finally, many thanks also to the brilliant acting students – for our 2019 scenes: Jessica Bank (Dorothy); Darian Bengston (Sebastian/Spaniard); John Chisham (Pisanio); Zoë Clayton-Kelly (Helen); Jonathan Dickson (Servant/Dutchman); Briony Farrell (Innogen); Peter Ferneding (Curtis/Philario); Amilcar Franco (Frenchman/Servant); Adam Goodbody (Posthumus); Josh Hussellbee (Cymbeline); Darcy Kent (Cloten); Mariam Khundadze (Bathhouse Attendant); Fernando Sakanassi (Iachimo/Servant); and Kaysha Woollery (Queen)

And for our 1937 scenes: Jessica Bank (Imogen); Darian Bengston (Pisanio); Zoë Clayton-Kelly (Helen); Jonathan Dickson (Cymbeline); Peter Ferneding (Frenchman); Amilcar Franco (Philario); Adam Goodbody (Posthumus); Darcy Kent (Iachimo); and Mariam Khundadze (Queen).

Image: Mariam Khundadze (Queen), Adam Goodbody (Posthumus) and Jessica Bank (Imogen) recording act 1 scene 1 of the 1937 reconstruction of Cymbeline; credit: Todd MacDonald.

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