Screens on stage

29th October 2013

Last week I saw on consecutive nights the National Theatre’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Headlong’s 1984 (above, in a production photograph by Tristram Kenton). The former, now closed, was directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, the latter is adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan – and it transfers to the Almeida Theatre from 8 February. Both productions made for truly stimulating evenings in the theatre, and I was particularly struck by the use in each of both live and recorded video. Two such deployments of large-scale moving images do not necessarily a trend make, but seeing the productions so close together made me muse yet more on the relationship between screens and stages – especially when playwright Simon Stephens (@stephenssimon) suggested the beginnings of an explanation in a passing comment on Twitter.

In Edward II, live video from two cameras on stage was relayed to screens mounted high up on either side of the Olivier’s open stage. This was used when, for example, the barons withdrew into a closed room within designer Lizzie Clachan’s set and also when Edward (a bravura performance by John Heffernan) was fleeing after defeat in battle. The screens were also employed for the presentation of Brechtian titles announcing what was to happen in the coming scene, and to present a pre-recorded sequence of the arrival of two characters who appeared first as if on the National’s roof. The recording was then smartly cut with a live camera feed as the characters came on stage. (Further details of the use of the video elements can be found in Duncan’s detailed blog post Vivat! at Margate Sands.)

A similar trick of combining live video with pre-shot sequences also featured (I think) in 1984, although there was  less live material in the production. A widescreen video display formed the top part of the back wall of designer Chloe Lamford’s set (that is, before a quite astonishing transformation scene to get us to Room 101). There were times when this presented (live) what Winston Smith (played by mark Arends) was writing in his precious (and entirely illegal) diary, times when it showed the broadcasts of Big Brother, and times when the audience was offered glimpses of the off-stage room in which Winston and Julia (Hara Yannas) shared their private moments; both of the latter elements were (mostly) pre-recorded.

So video was central to both productions, although it never felt as if technology took them over. But why might it be the case that these stage productions (and others I’m sure you can name, not all of them Rupert Goold’s for Headlong) are making such a feature of this idea? My seventeen-year-old daughter Kate (who loved both shows) suggested that it might be that theatre wanted to make itself more appealing to younger audiences – and that taking on the trappings of a familiar screen culture could help.

Which is a good thought, but does it in turn mean that theatre is losing confidence in its traditional forms? Does the stage now need the prop that screens can provide? Or is it the case that theatre today is sufficiently confident to assimilate other forms and other media and make them in its own image? Maybe both such imperatives are at work – or at least that was my initial conclusion before I stumbled on a tweet from Simon Stephens.

That’s Thomas Ostermeier, should you need reminding, resident director at the Schaubuhne in Berlin, whose astonishing deconstructive Hamlet came to the Barbican in November 2011 – go here for Andrew Dickson’s Guardian piece, which will give you a sense of what Ostermeier’s theatre is about. And certainly there’s a good deal of Ostermeier in Edward II and traces of his concerns in 1984. But I’m not sure that Ostermeier is much of a man for screens on stage.

But there is another influential European director who most certainly is – and that’s Ivo van Hove who works with toneelgroepamsterdam in Holland. Van Hove has been seen here – and again thanks to the Barbican – with Roman Tragedies (in 2009) and with Antonioni Project (2011).

Here’s a glimpse of the former, a five-and-a-half hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays…

… and this is a trailer for the latter, which responded to the great Italian director’s film trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse:

See what I mean about the screens and the live video?

The next film adaptation by Ivo van Hove to be seen in London is toneelgroepamsterdam’s production drawn from Ingmar Bergman’s raw and intense Scenes from a Marriage – and this is at the Barbican from 14-17 November.

Then in April Ivo van Hove is staging a new production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. My tickets for both have been booked for months. And when theatre is as challenging and as compelling as Ostermeier’s Hamlet and Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, then I don’t think we need fear that the form no longer has confidence in itself and is relying on screens as a prop. Just the opposite – and if only our television was sufficiently confident about culture to explore a collaboration that engaged with all of this. If only.


  1. keith griffiths says:

    I think one should not underestimate the work in this field of Katie Mitchell, who in turn has used the Schaubuhne in Berlin as a vibrant laboratory for experiment. She has been working with the innovative filmmaker Grant Gee on her integrated live-media productions recently.

    • John Wyver says:

      Thanks Keith, I was thinking as well about Katie Mitchell’s work with Grant Gee and others – and you know that I’ve written about there here also, including last May when Miss Julie came from the Schaubruhne to the Barbican:

      In a way she seems interested in something parallel but distinct, which is creating a live film, in which the moving image is the primary element and the theatrical elements, to an extent, are subsidiary. But perhaps that’s to mis-read her concerns.

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