Out of the past

20th February 2012

To the V&A for a Sunday afternoon screening of an archival recording of Michael Grandage’s 2004-05 production of Schiller’s Don Carlos. This came courtesy of the invaluable National Video Archive of Performance, which for the past twenty years has been making high-quality recordings of major theatre productions for the future use of researchers and historians – and for limited but perfectly achievable access by the rest of us. To celebrate its birthday. the NVAP has organised a rare series of public showings (see below). A fortnight back Trevor Nunn introduced his 2004 Old Vic Hamlet with Ben Whishaw and Imogen Stubbs, and last Sunday Gregory Doran spoke before the NVAP’s recording of his recent RSC production of Cardenio. Don Carlos was compelling, and fascinating in all sorts of ways, not least for its echoes as theatre-on-screen of a now-lost form of theatre-on-television.

This Don Carlos transferred to the West End from the Crucible in Sheffield for just twelve weeks. It was one of those shows that I really wanted to see, but failed to get to: a legendary but almost never performed play by Schiller, a much-praised new adaptation by Mike Poulton, Derek Jacobi in the central role, and a by-all-accounts finely textured production by Michael Grandage, 5-star reviews. All of which comes through in the NVAP’s three-camera recording that was made of a matinee performance at the Gielgud Theatre.

The screening offered a vivid sense of the production from seven years back – the strengths (and occasional weaknesses) of the performances, the brilliant setting and costumes (Christopher Oram), lightng (Paule Constable) and sound design and score (the ubiquitous but invariably brilliant Adam Cork). Yet I was also aware that 150 minutes (plus comfort break) was a long time to spend in an airless lecture theatre with an archival theatre recording.

To what extent was it an aesthetic experience watching this artless recording (which was also anonymous; there are no video credits on the tape or in the programme notes)? There were times when I was most definitely involved in the drama, drawn in to the sixteenth century world of the characters, caught up – as with the best of theatre (and television) – in a tale of love and intrigue and betrayal and power. But for much, perhaps all, of the time I was (also) aware that I was watching a trace of something else. Before me were strands of an exchange between performers and audience that I was over-hearing or watching at one remove, perhaps as if through a large and mobile keyhole.

Inevitably, especially with the recording thrown onto a big screen, there were moments when the performances, pitched for the Circle and not for the cameras, came across as ‘shout-y’, but this was less of a problem than one might have imagined. The theatre lighting, used without any changes for the recording, at times appeared exceptionally dark (and it was a very dark production) and at times has burned out highlights. But, again, even projected very large, this was not disruptive.

The camerawork and vision mixing were achieved and intelligent, and the pictures often looked exceptionally good. But the sound had a somewhat distant quality, lacking in the intimacy and immediacy we expect of film and television (and occasionally blighted by what I guess were tube trains running beneath the Gielgud). We were close when we needed to be, but refreshingly often on a wide shot to see the whole stage. Only very occasionally was there a mis-cue, a scrambled search for the camera shot, a moment when the focus was off. The pace of the cutting between shots was also most definitely slower than contemporary television – except, of course, that these days two and a half hours of Schiller, no matter how stupendous, would never get within spitting distance of the small screen. Television today cannot bear very much (or indeed any) theatricality.

A time there was when we just might have seen Don Carlos on our domestic sets, or at least when comparable plays from the classical repertoire were part of the mission of public service broadcasting. There was a time too when plays were broadcast live from the theatre – and indeed for many years taking three cameras into a house was an absolutely standard production technique. (Over on the blog for the Screen Plays research project, I have just been writing about three camera OBs from The Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green in the immediate post-war years, here and here.)

Watching a theatre relay thirty or forty years ago must have had something of the quality of what I felt in the V&A lecture theatre: a sense of privilege to be witnessing something rich and strange that would otherwise have been denied me, mixed with a frustration that this was not perhaps as thrilling as it might otherwise been, had I been in the theatre, or had the play been re-imagined more for the screen, or even had pigs taken flight.

None of which should be taken as suggesting that I have anything but the greatest admiration for the work of the NVAP – and for the nearly 300 recordings of theatre productions that the collection now preserves. There is a full list here of what the NVAP has recorded since 1992, when the deal was done with the Federation of Entertainment Unions to permit these tapings without payment of artists’ fees. E-mail tmenquiries@vam.ac.uk to find out how to arrange for research viewings of any of the titles (and also take a look at Annette Brausch’s September 2009 blog about going to the V&A’s outpost at Blythe House to watch one of the recordings.)

Future NVAP Sunday afternoon screenings at the V&A include:

26 February: Three Hours After Marriage (1717), written by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and directed by Richard Cottrell; recorded at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, September 1996.

4 MarchThe Alchemist (1610), written by Ben Jonson and directed by Nicholas Hytner, recorded in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre, November 2006.

11 MarchA Christmas Carol (1843), written by Charles Dickens, adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May, recorded at the Young Vic, January 2008.

18 MarchHedda Gabler (1890), written by Henrik Ibsen and directed by Richard Eyre, recorded at the Duke of York’s Theatre, July 2005. (This stars Eve Best and Benedict Cumberbatch – I’ll definitely be there for this one.)

25 March: Waiting for Godot (1948), written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Sean Mathias, recorded at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, June 2009.

Further details are available here. There will be another series of screenings in April and May.

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