Second thoughts, and a first look, part 1

27th January 2014

At lunchtime on Sunday I sat in the front row of Screen 2 at the Barbican watching – for the first time on a big screen since November – Richard II Live from Stratford-upon-Avon. Tonight I sat in the front row of Screen 3 of Cineworld Haymarket at the premiere of Digital Theatre’s screen version of Private Lives. Two months on from making Richard II I’m still trying to organise my thoughts about it, and doubtless I’ll continue musing on Private Lives, in part because it takes such a different approach to translating a stage play for the screen. But I can’t help but say that I was once again thrilled by what the team achieved with Richard II – and remember Henry IV part one is to be broadcast on 14 May (above) – and a touch disappointed by Private Lives.

It was particularly interesting seeing Greg Doran’s Richard II again over the weekend, given that I also saw the production on the Barbican stage two days before. It had settled in since Stratford and grown in some ways. Michael Pennington was even more impressive giving ‘This sceptr’d isle’, and David Tennant’s performance was yet deeper and richer. On Sunday, however, there were moments in the production that, for me at least, worked better on the screen than on stage.

Right at the end, after the newly crowned King Henry has vowed to make a pilgrimage of atonement to Jerusalem, a spectral Richard appears on the bridge above and behind the monarch. In the live recording the camera, mounted on the crane, creeps slowly in on Nigel Lindsay who reacts in surprise to something that the audience has yet to see. Then, timed to perfection, the camera tilts up to reveal a brightly illuminated David Tennant looking down. Sound cue. Blackout. Tingles down the spine, even on the umpteenth viewing.

On the stage, especially because of the width of the Barbican’s proscenium, David Tennant had to walk in to take his mark, and even though there was no light on him one can’t not be unaware of this. Sound and light ‘revealed’ him, but the moment did not have the focus – and the power – that the directed camera achieves. Most certainly the experiences of watching the stage production and seeing it on screen are very different, but this does not mean that we can’t evaluate their comparative effects.

The most thoughtful and detailed discussion to date of Richard II in the two media is Stage versus screen? The RSC’s Richard II, posted on the Digital Shakespeares blog by Erin Sullivan in early December. One of her key points is how similar was her response to watching the two forms:

My sense of the overarching performance experience that emerged through a succession of camera angles and edits for the cinema screen in London very closely matched the one that I had perceived in-person in Stratford the day before. Perhaps this was due to an unconscious filling in of scenic and performance detail on my part – it would have been interesting, I think, to have seen the filmed version first, and then the in-person show, since one of my main difficulties with previous broadcast experiences has been a sense of confusion as to where particular characters are located on the stage, or indeed what the wider stage-space itself looks like.

Erin Sullivan is gratifyingly positive about the screen adaptation which ‘mixed camera angles and perspectives in a more varied, measured, and – for me – satisfying way than in any live broadcast I’ve previously seen.’ She acknowledges that effective use was made of close-ups but also that

the directors weren’t afraid to leave this mode and offer what I would describe as a more open, contingent, unpredictable – in a word, theatrical – point of view. Wide and mid-shots of the stage and characters were sensitively mixed with tighter close ups, creating a roving and fluid perspective that loosened its grip on the viewer’s gaze and recognised the fact that there’s more than one best seat or best perspective in any theatrical house.

At the same time, she writes, there were strikingly ‘cinematic’ moments when the camera’s gaze was employed to underline significant moments – and I would say that my example above from the final seconds of the production is one of these.

While the stubbornly subjective question of ‘better’ will always depend on personal taste and context, the question of how audiences respond en masse to this new era of widespread theatre broadcasting – both in terms of general feedback and in terms of ticket sales – is one that will be of serious interest to theatres, arts programmers, funding bodies, and critics alike. It is, I think, the question with regards to where theatre-going and as a consequence theatre-making are headed in the coming years.

Indeed – and something of the crucial dialogue about this question is just beginning to get going. See, for example, Elizabeth Freestone’s What live theatre screenings mean for small companies, together with the accompanying comments threads. What I want to do tomorrow in a second part of this post is to apply something of the aesthetic discussion to Digital Theatre’s Private Lives, which is an as-live recording of the Chichester Festival Theatre production that transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the summer of 2013. Screenings of this begin on 6 February in some 200 cinemas across Britain.


  1. Joanne Wood says:

    I have to agree with you about the final ‘apparition’ of Richard working better on film.
    You mention the width of the Barbican stage, but even in the RST the necessity of opening the safety gate & walking out onto the gantry drew your attention, It just felt slightly clunky to me.
    Another moment that I felt was enhanced on screen was the Flint Caste scene with Richard & Aumerle. Such an emotional scene made even better by the close ups, (especially as some seats in the RST had a restricted view of anything up high ).

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