Is ‘theatre’ mutating?

27th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Maybe this post will go a step, or indeed several such, too far. But humour me. I started out from a tiny moment of pleasure this morning when I saw that Andy Dickson had reviewed in the Financial Times the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon screen adaptation of Simon Godwin’s production of Hamlet (above, with Paapa Essiedu) that I produced back in 2016. I’m going to end up wondering whether one of the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis might be a substantially new conception for us all of the essence of theatre. Hamlet, first, however.

Part of my pleasure at seeing the review of Hamlet this morning was, of course, because it was so positive. Dickson notes that he saw the stage production when it toured to London’s Hackney Empire in 2018:

Then, I was entranced by Essiedu’s electrifying onstage presence and supercomputer speed; encountering him again on a laptop plugged into my TV, it’s a relief to find that none of that is blunted or blurred.

The piece was prompted, of course, by the critic looking for ‘theatre’ in the time of Covid-19 and in this case finding it courtesy of Marquee TV’s stream of the RSC Live from… recording. (A subscription to Marquee TV normally costs £8.99 per month but the service is currently offering a 30-day free trial; alongside 17 RSC productions there are shows from the Royal Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe and others.) Dickson’s enthusiasm continues:

This is Essiedu’s show: loping around like a wildcat testing the bars of his cage, he flits between sardonic laughter and frantic grief. He may not have the dolour of some other Hamlets, but as he negotiates Shakespeare’s verse he resembles a young jazz musician exploring the outer reaches of his instrument… Stockpile popcorn alongside pasta: this is Hamlet as thriller.

Lovely (and spot-on too). But I was also thrilled to see the article because it is an all-too-rare engagement by a respected theatre critic with a screen version of a stage show. Despite at least a decade of ‘event cinema’ screenings, not to mention television broadcasts, from NT Live, the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe and many others, theatre critics have almost never written about these adaptations. As far as they are concerned, they respond to shows when they premiere on stage. And anyway (this is implicit and only infrequently expressed) putting them on screen is simply a matter of pointing a camera. The multitude of mediating processes (framing, shot lengths, camera moves and many, many more) that a live or as-live adaptation entails are, for writers on theatre, irrelevant.

Indeed, it’s symptomatic that Andy Dickson considers only theatrical setting and performance in relation to Hamlet, and fails to acknowledge the complexity and subtlety with which screen director Robin Lough and an exceptional team of collaborators translated the show to the screen. The fact that nothing of Paapa Essiedu’s ‘electrifying onstage presence… is blunted nor blurred’ is, to a significant degree, thanks to their skill and commitment.

Not “just” theatre

Nor, even as ‘event cinema’ has become a key element in contemporary screen culture, has discussion of stage to screen adaptations been taken up by film (or television) critics. For them, the broadcasts are “just” theatre (or opera, or dance), and it’s seemingly irrelevant that the production of a NT Live or RSC Live from… presentation is as demanding and as expensive and, I would suggest, as creative as the production of a low-budget independent feature. (I might also mention the deep-seated ‘anti-theatrical prejudice’ – the phrase is Jonas Barish’s from the title of his mammoth 1982 study – of both the film and television worlds, but that is another story.)

As a consequence of these positions adopted by theatre, film and television critics, the stage on screen has hardly ever been considered as a creative practice in mainstream publications. One of the rare exceptions is a significant column written in 2014 for the Guardian by Michael Billington about Digital Theatre’s screen adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts from the Almeida:

We are now in an era when the gap between film and theatre, thanks to sophisticated technology, is constantly narrowing… I can only say that [the screen version of Ghosts] offered an experience comparable to that I had in the theatre… while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity. 

Billington frames his positive comments in relation to ‘reproducing’ the stage production. Even he is largely unconcerned with the translation process, although he notes that ‘Ghosts is especially well suited to the close up technique adopted here‘ (the link is to a video extract from the production).

Academia, in contrast to the world of journalism, has over the past decade plunged into a plethora of questions about stage to screen adaptations. Some of the very best writing to appear to date (and there are also a slew of PhDs underway) is contained in Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, edited by Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, Laurie Osborne (and now available as a paperback and cheap-ish eBook). My own book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History also touches on some of the key issues.

Today, in this era of enforced isolation, with theatres and cinemas shuttered worldwide, it would appear that the stage on screen is coming to be increasingly valued. The BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative has theatre shows, including a half dozen from the RSC, at its heart. Numerous companies have begun to stream their archived productions — and Chris Wiegand’s invaluable list for the Guardian features many of the best available now — and Andy Dickson is not alone among his peers in starting to bring critical faculties to considering screen versions. As I write this Chris Wiegand has just posted a detailed discussion of I, Cinna (the Poet), the RSC’s 2012 adaptation for online of Tim Crouch’s monologue for young adults (and the rest of us) featuring a character from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

There are two Cinnas in Julius Caesar – our poet host [played, wonderfully, by Jude Owusu] is fatally mistaken for a conspirator with the same name. We share his final moments while he is holed up at home and the roar of the crowd swells outside as Caesar is assassinated. Glitchy CCTV footage of riots punctuates the scenes. The city outside is holding its breath amid terror and confusion, says Cinna, sheltering in his bolthole with blasted brick walls. I look through our lounge window at the street outside, emptied of people; sometimes watching a performance in your own home can strike a chord it wouldn’t in a theatre.

Straight to screen

Numerous theatre companies are also beginning to explore how to make original drama online using the technologies de nos jours such as Zoom and Twitch. I’m going to return to some of these in future posts, but one of the most ambitious projects is Unprecedented, just announced by Headlong in association with Century Films:

 [Eight] intimate new plays will give an immediate insight into this unprecedented communal experience, meditating on how community, education, work, relationships, family, culture, climate and capitalism are changing on an hourly basis. They will be created using digital conferencing technology and will combine live and pre-recorded material. 

So in just a few days we have a new embrace by the BBC and the world beyond of stage to screen adaptations, critical attention from journalists who largely failed to notice this form before, and vigorous interest in making new ‘plays’ for streams and screens. Yet the world of the stage still (or at least until a fortnight ago) clings to the idea that ‘theatre’ is what takes place when performers and an audience experience something together at the same time and in the same place.

Theatre was and is about, above all, coterminous co-presence. That is the very essence of theatre. Recordings and screen versions are all very well, this argument runs (and I have heard this said explicitly as well as implied a thousand times), but they’re not ‘theatre’. Actors and spectators need to see and to hear and to feel (in non-physical ways) each other for theatre to work its magic.

Yet might it be, with all of this activity on and around screens, that one of the unexpected fall-outs from the constantly mutating Covid-19 is a kind of mutation in what we believe theatre is and could be? If we all come to accept that there are times, and perhaps many of them, when coterminous copresence is not possible, then might we be more sympathetic to the idea that ‘theatre’ can indeed live just as effectively and as powerfully and as meaningfully on a screen as on a stage?

Header image: Paapa Essiedu in Simon Godwin’s 2016 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company of Hamlet; photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC.


  1. Erin says:

    Really lovely piece John – thank you. Yes, we will all be thinking a lot harder about what it means to be with others during these extraordinary times. I think that presence – and co-presence – is about focus, and that focus requires sustained attention. So for me the greatest challenge of online and/or screen presence is not the fact that we’re not in the same room with one another, but that there are so many other things tempting/requiring us to split our attention (kids, other apps/email, someone knocking on the door, etc). This also applies to in-person experience, but usually the number of distractions are fewer and the social codes about being visibly distracted are less permissive. I don’t think that a more diffuse kind of focus/attention is inherently a bad thing – it just makes the experience different (and sometimes better). It’s going to be really interesting to watch some of these broadcasts and to see how we all respond to them as theatre and as a kind of shared experience.

  2. Kirk McElhearn says:

    It’s worth noting that RSC Members can get a three-month free trial to Marquee TV. They sent out an email yesterday with a code for Members.

  3. John Wyver says:

    @Erin – I think you’re absolutely right about focus/attention – it’s partly why the cinema experience is often so much better than watching on TV or a laptop (that and the increased sense of a social experience).

    But of course we know/believe that the attention of early modern audiences in playhouses was very different from our post-19C/modern experiences – and maybe there are insights to learn from those understandings.

    Also, I think Linda Stone’s ideas on ‘continuous partial attention’ are interesting (although not necessarily recommended for watching drama):

  4. Pete Kirwan says:

    Lots of important thoughts here John. The main thing I’d like to pick up on is the question of co-presence. Some of the academic writing – notably that by Erin – has done some great thinking about liveness in relation to the sharing of time, but not necessarily space, and I think the coming weeks are going to be an interesting test of that.

    As theatres rush to put their content online, most are offering on-demand, but some are still privileging occasion, notably the NT (albeit their Thursday night productions are also going to be available after the fact) and the Schaubuhne.

    To me, at least, that sense of ‘occasion’ is of especial importance at the moment – witness the collective performance of appreciation to the NHS a few nights ago. I was surprised by how moved I found that; and similarly how keen I am to be part of the Thursday night collective viewing of the NT Live productions, even if I know I can watch them later at more convenient times. I own all of the RSC Live DVDs, and yet I inevitably enjoy them more in a cinema. The pull of collective viewing at the moment is so strong, especially in the absence of cinemas and theatres, that occasion-viewing (whether or not it originates in theatre) has more value than ever.

    In this sense, I think it’s important to keep insisting on the difference of live-recorded theatre to in-person theatre or to ‘normal’ recorded film/television. The currency of streamed theatre is precisely its aesthetic of liveness, its promise of togetherness, its privileging of the labour of performance and filming. And I do hope this is a moment where critics and general audiences can (re)discover its value.

  5. John Wyver says:

    Terrific to see a discussion developing – thanks all.

    Katie Hawthorne’s piece for The Stage today is very relevant here: ‘Live-streaming: digital may not save theatre but it can help shape the industry after Covid-19’

  6. John Wyver says:

    @Pete Thanks so much (as always) – and it’ll be fascinating to see how this play out with the NT Live screenings at a particular time and any differences or similarities there might be with a *broadcast* moment when the RSC Live… productions are shown on BBC2/4. Do we think there is any difference between the sharing of time online (and internationally, across time zones) and the sharing of time via (conventional) television in single country?

  7. Susanne Greenhalgh says:

    I think Pete’s use of ‘occasion-viewing’ and the current pull of collective viewing while we isolate ourselves is really helpful but I’d like to extend these concepts beyond NT Live’s evident intent to retain ‘eventness’. In thinking about how time shared might differ between viewing in variable time zones online and viewing conventional (scheduled?) television it’s worth noting how the BBC is reverting to its accustomed strategy of constructing a special broadcast ‘season’ around performance in general and Shakespeare in particular. What is the effect on audiences of this longue duree approach? And how will the impact of this ‘quarantine’ season compare with those deployed in 1964, 2012 and 2016?

  8. John Wyver says:

    Such interesting questions @Susanne. My sense is that in 1964, while there were a number of significant “performance” productions marking the 400th anniversary, including the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors from the Aldwych and the BBC’s Hamlet shot at Elsinore, there was no concentrated focus, even around the Birthday itself. The RSC’s The Wars of the Roses didn’t get shown until the following Easter – and Shakespeare is still, to a degree (and moderately), spread during these years throughout the schedule.

    Although there is a significant clutch of identified programmes (of all genres) for Festival 40 in 1976, marking 40 years of BBC TV, the idea of “seasons”, whether of performance, Shakespeare or other themes, only began to shape the schedules in the 1990s, when BBC2 was looking to distinguish itself from, first, Channel 4 and then cable and satellite services.

    And there’s most definitely really interesting work to be done on how Shakespeare means differently on broadcast television in 2012 (Olympics), about which @pete and @erin have written, 2016 (400th “deathday”), which @susanne has considered, and now. On thought already is that his centrality to and in education already seems to be a stronger factor in 2020 than in previous years.

  9. Beth Sharrock says:

    I’m conscious that I am joining after a lot of interesting topics here have been covered but I wanted to echo some of the thoughts in terms of re-evaluating co-presence and @Erin ‘s idea of ‘focus’. It strikes me that each of the NTLive re-screenings are to be interrupted by the #ClapforOurCarers at 8pm on Thursdays, in the case of those watching the streams as they are released. I agree that this context makes us all the more aware of the possibilities of co-presence rather than actual presence, and the idea of switching between the co-present viewing of a broadcast to the co-present applause for frontline workers suggests to me how much technology leads us back towards a desire for human connection (and certainly, only being able to catch up with friends and family via the internet makes this all the more pronounced).

    In that vein, I’m inclined to think my own experience of the ‘eventness’ of these broadcasts is more tied to actual co-presence than I had anticipated. I find that – contrary to @Pete’s view – I’m treating broadcasts on television in the same way I would treat other televised content, with a tendency to pause, rewind etc. without a sense of corrupting or devaluing the broadcast as event. (Though I appreciate I’m in a privileged position in terms of a lack of interruptions.) I’m interested to see how this impacts on my viewing of future broadcasts in cinemas, just as my viewing of those cinema broadcasts impacted on my viewing of feature films (kept forgetting that there was no interval in your standard film!). Likewise, I wonder if people who are introduced to broadcasts during this time as a televisual medium will come to appreciate and engage with them in a different way to those of us who were introduced in cinemas.

    Ultimately, I second your hope that this might prompt more appreciations of a broadcast on its own terms rather than as a poor substitute to theatre, John. I think what critics of broadcasts often overlook is that for many, the mediated performance may be a more interesting, engaging and comfortable than its live equivalent (I personally had real anxiety sitting in live performances for a few years which made broadcasts a hugely preferable means by which to still see Shakespeare performed). I don’t know whether it will take broadcasts which adopt a more abstract adaptive technique (I’m thinking of portable cameras used for the Donmar/Phyllida Lloyd Caesar, or the state media apparatus incorporated into the Almeida Hamlet) for theatre and film critics to appreciate these broadcasts as a creative medium independent of the theatre production, or a seismic shift in reception conditions like the one we are experiencing now. Either way, I hope it happens and thanks for the reflections, John!

  10. Jack Jansen says:

    Interesting! But I would be very interested in your thoughts from the point where this article ends, on co-presence. As you yourself said a few years ago (paraphrasing) “going to the theatre is not only about the play, but also about the excitement as you find your chair, the chablis and salmon canapés during the break and the buzz afterwards”. Are there ways in which we could capture this in these corona-ruled times? Or at least have a different but related experience? This _does_ seem to be an interesting time in which to experiment with such alternative experiences….

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