To Clapham Picturehouse last night for the NT Live broadcast of Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear. Excepting only the sound bleed from the bar next door through much of the second half, this was a triumph. An exceptional staging translated to the screen with skill and sensitivity. Nor was this simply a pale reflection of a theatrical original; the evening was one of the best demonstrations yet of the expressive power of the live-to-cinema form.
I felt the play was revealed to me as never before, in part because of the intelligence and immediacy of Nick Hytner’s production and in part because I was taken by the cameras right into the play and its relationships, its deceptions and its horrors, even on occasion its humour.
A couple of cavils need to temper just marginally my enthusiasm. I can’t imagine quite why Emma Freud couldn’t carry off her opening interview with Hytner without forgetting a key part and having to call him back after saying goodbye. And there were some sound glitches in the first half especially.
I should also say that the screen director last night was Robin Lough with whom we are working on the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon Richard II on 13 November. So I wasn’t watching with an entirely disinterested eye. Even so, I thought Robin found exactly the right balance between wide shots and close-ups, with far more of the former than television might have offered. He also paced the visual mix with precision, holding certain shots with just modest movement and allowing them when appropriate simply to observe what was happening between the characters. The lighting too was spot-on, showing off to Greta effect the spectacular set.
The only ‘extra’ last night was an interval film that concentrated on the contemporary army setting of the production with interviews with the military advisor and the fight director. The points it made it did well, but I rather missed any contextual consideration of, for example, race and colonialism, sexual politics and psychology.
One thing struck me in particular, which the actors’ relationship with the camera as they spoke their soliloquies. On television, when such speeches have been played, the actor often utilises the intimacy of the medium and speaks directly into the lens, addressing the viewer with a personal immediacy. In cinema adaptations of Shakespeare the norm is to internalise a soliloquy, with actors speaking to themselves or the director shifting them to voice-over to suggest interiority.
Here, however, the actors spoke ‘past’ the cameras to engage the audience in the theatre. They avoided the line of the lens, even when as was the case on at least one occasion for Adrian Lester it felt as if the camera was truly in his face. The effect was also heightened to a degree because two of the main cameras were placed below eye level and so in the mid-shots were slightly looking up at faces.
I was intrigued by this rather than irritated, but it did suggest one aspect of the screen grammar for this form that is distinctive from television and from film. It also means that even when they are not actually in shot the audience is present, and we are aware of them, in a way that is never the case with either the small screen or, conventionally, the large.