‘Yet looks he like a king!’

21st November 2013

The RSC has posted a 5-minute extract from Richard II Live from Stratford-upon-Avon on YouTube and elsewhere, and I am delighted to embed it here. This is part of Act IV Scene 1, the deposition scene, and it gives a strong sense of the ‘look’ of the live broadcast, although inevitably it shrinks the experience from the big screen and cannot do justice to the sound mix. Below I am just starting out on a discussion of the very particular screen language of this live presentation.

What interests me today is how we describe and discuss the ways in which the cameras contribute to the story-telling. There are six cameras in play here: one on the crane, three on dollies allowing lateral movement, and two in fixed positions. All of these, apart from the crane and one of the fixed cameras, are set within the stalls at Stratford, more or less at the height of the actors’ heads. The other fixed camera is placed at the front of the circle, offering an elevated ‘safety’ shot of the full stage.

Clearly, this clip represents a hybrid form, somewhere between theatre and what we think of cinema today. The narrative is constructed in part by the succession of shots and their framings – look at the way in which the close-up of the crown held by Richard and Henry follows the wide shot of Richard teasing and, in a way, dominating the usurper, and then is followed by the shot from the side which favours Richard as he muses on fortune and the crown.

This is comparable to the way in which film editing might construct the scene, and yet there is more time given here to wide shots which show the whole stage, and even beyond the stage at times to include the audience. The cameras stand back more, and the pacing is more deliberate than would be the case with a television drama – there are fewer shots per minute.

Individual shots develop, with subtle movement shifting what we can see at any point, maintaining visual interest but – hopefully – not becoming intrusive. As a viewer we are invited to explore the scene rather than have the camera (over-)determine what the meaning of individual exchanges might be. As a consequence, this is closer to theatre – and yet it’s clearly not theatre either.

There are undoubtedly similarities to the visual language of sports coverage, which also has a balance of panoramic views and details. Sports also makes use of occasional bravura shots within a continuing regularity. The space is constructed here is a manner similar to a football ground, with most of the cameras and the shots from one side of a squared-off area, but with these being supplemented by occasional shots from the sides.

As I say, I am only beginning to make sense of the visual language here, and any contributed reflections on this would be very welcome.

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