Hangmen rehanged

28th May 2016

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Through yesterday I posted some thoughts from The Live Cinema Conference 2016 at King’s College London. At the end of the day we retired for the traditional post-discussion drinks (even if some were surprised that an event with a comparatively high ticket cost rolled out a cash bar). As we were standing around musing and moaning, we were interrupted by the appearance of a KCL alumnus who it transpired was a prominent barrister in the early 1960s. And so began a promenade drama that led us into an encore screening of NT Live’s recent broadcast of Hangmen. Additional accompaniments were to include both some further dramatic pieces and an introduction to ‘edible cinema’. I have to admit that, while I found elements of this engaging, it didn’t really deliver for me, and at the interval I mentally made my excuses and left. I was tired, in part after a slightly disappointing day that ultimately I decided was grounded in a category error. Of which more below.

Our pre-show drama played out in corridors and on staircases within King’s, and then out into the courtyard between the college and Somerset House. People argued for and against the death penalty (scripted by Sarah Weatherall and directed by Marie McCarthy) as if we were in pre-abolition Britain – the bill outlawing hanging (apart for treason) went through Parliament on 29 October 1965. Which was the cue for celebrations from our acting company (below) and the handing out of a mock-up Evening Standard (above) containing the news as well as credits and background information on three cases in which there were probably miscarriages of justice.

celebrating the abolition of hanging

The most dramatically effective moment was when actors appearing as the three people who may well have been wrongly hanged – Ruth Ellis, Timothy Evans and Mahmood Hussein Mattan – walked slowly through the crowd to the insistent tolling of a bell. After which we followed our cast back into the King’s Anatomy Theatre lecture room where earlier in the day we had been listening to presentations and panels. Shown to designated seats (because of dietary requirements), we found neat little trays with eight elegant tubs and a menu.

edible cinema tray

After we had waited rather too long for others who had not been at the conference to join us, actor Chris Yarnell playing a KCL Professor (who I took to be a real – irritatingly trendy – academic) explained, with a magic trick or two, how edible cinema was going to work. Eight times during Hangmen a bell would ring and we were then to open the next tub and consume its contents. And so we settled down to watch the polished and beautifully performed NT Live recording.

The first bell rang when one of the characters in the pub on screen ordered a bag of peanuts. Lifting our No. 1 lids we found a selection of these nuts accompanied by the odd pork scratching. Munching on these in sync with the sinister figure in the drama was a neat idea, but I found the conjunction less satisfying when we consumed a little cocktail that happened to be named after a bathing suit mentioned in the dialogue. Ditto when we were offered a couple of chipolatas and a small serving of cold mash after a prompt in the play of a hanged man’s genitals.

Then as the first part of Hangmen unfolded we were also offered between the scenes dramatised contributions from ‘Timothy Evans’ and ‘Ruth Ellis’. Ruth, poor girl, was even symbolically hanged by the cod KCL prof. Maybe I’m too much of a purist but I couldn’t quite see the point of interrupting playwright Martin McDonagh’s narrative and taking us out of the imaginative world that he was weaving for us. Which, I think, was ultimately why I slipped off at half-time. People earlier on had spoken of how live cinema events had to aspire to being ‘breath-taking’ or ‘transformational’ – and I felt we were some way from either.

Reflecting on the day as I walked home, I was even more convinced than earlier (although there are clear indications in my live blog) that the conference had conflated two kinds of activities that I’m not sure have much in common. There is the live (or ‘as live) transmission to cinema auditoria and other places of plays, opera, ballet and museums shows. And then there is the creation of live experiences in cinemas around and alongside the presentation of stored media known as films. There’s an ontological difference at the heart of this pairing, which is ultimately that between television and cinema, and to bring the two together is – until someone convinces me differently – a category mistake.

Across town, in the Barbican’s theatre, Katie Mitchell’s company from the Schaubuhne Berlin were creating a live film projection as a stage show in The Forbidden Zone. It’s a captivating and thrilling event that questions in profound ways the constituent elements of theatre and film. And there are other theatre makers, including Ivo van Hove and Joe Hill-Gibbins, who at times work with similar ideas, even if rarely with the rigour and focus that Katie Mitchell brings. But it’s the idea of live-ness that is being interrogated in this work that I think the RSC and NT livecasts are much closer to. The dialogue to be had with this strand of contemporary theatre, I believe, may ultimately prove more stimulating than with those – much as I respect their work – conjuring up experiential exhibition.

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