NT Live: The Comedy of Errors, Greenwich Picturehouse, 1 March 2012
Taking a second look at the National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors provided some new angles on the production.
In one respect, Lenny Henry was also back on familiar territory for this NT Live broadcast, as he was playing comedy in front of an audience with television cameras capturing every moment.
The main set used for the opening scene inside a derelict building reversed and split into sections to produce other locations. Some, like Adriana’s home at the Phoenix, were quite small in relation to the overall size of the stage, concentrating the action within a restricted space.
This format contained echoes of the original ‘arcade’ setting of the play, which involved the stage being divided into three sections representing houses to enable continuous action across various locations.
The close-ups brought out the comedy in Lenny Henry’s grimacing as the increasingly perplexed Antipholus of Syracuse.
Michelle Terry’s detailed performance of Luciana also benefited from the camera’s attention.
When she was propositioned by Antipholus outside the Phoenix, Luciana requested that he try to hide his dissatisfaction with his “wife” Adriana and not flaunt his dalliances.
She developed her idea in a long speech that culminated in a wonderful visual image related to him walking through the town with his mistress at his side: “Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve”.
This speech can be spoken in a continuous confident stream, so that the complex series of images and concepts appears to trip from Luciana’s eloquent tongue with the ease and facility of an expert orator.
However, Michelle Terry’s Essex Girl characterisation of Luciana was not meant to be one of nature’s great thinkers or public speakers. This required the flow of rhetoric to have more of a stutter. Consequently, her Luciana seemed to be developing this train of thought on the hoof as if the thoughts were just occurring to her.
The slow and deliberate development of her argument, punctuated by nervous gestures and a pained, embarrassed expression turned into one of the most memorable comedy sequences of the evening.
Extracting comedic juice from a speech like that was much more rewarding than rattling through it as if it required no effort.
The ability of the camera to zoom in on the reunited family in the final scene added to the poignancy of the moment.
NT Live broadcasts offer another way of looking at theatre. The additional perspectives they provide are a good reason to revisit productions that have already been viewed in the theatre.
NT Live: King Lear, Greenwich Picturehouse, 3 February 2011
Oh, the irony! Derek Jacobi stood in the middle of the Donmar stage and solemnly intoned Lear’s challenge to the winds to blow and crack their cheeks. Not long after, the real tempest raging outside rose to the occasion and did its worst: not by raising the waters of the sea to drown the weathercocks of the local steeples, but by knocking the uplink dish on the roof of the theatre out of alignment causing the live transmission to break down.
The performance was halted until the dish could be fixed. It restarted after a few minutes from the beginning of the cliff top scene, giving us a second chance to see it.
But this unfortunate incident should not be allowed to overshadow either the brilliance of the production or the way in which the Donmar proved itself to be a perfect venue for live theatre broadcasting.
The pre-show shots of the audience showed how the interior of the auditorium had been painted in the same whitewash effect as the wall, floor and ceiling of the stage. This was a striking feature when viewing the play at the Donmar, so it was good that the broadcast conveyed the same effect.
The small Donmar auditorium was perfectly suited to filming. With the entire centre stalls given over to cameras and the audience fitted into the side stalls and gallery, the space effectively became a television studio for the duration of the broadcast.
Sat close to the cast, the cameras could film using a zoom angle that approximated to that of the human eye to produce very natural looking images. When filming from the corners of the stage, the entire space was viewable with some of the cast dramatically foregrounded.
Whereas the National Theatre requires a boom-mounted camera to range across the stage and provide close-ups, at the Donmar tight shots of individuals and groups could be achieved with a modicum of zoom. A single camera mounted on the front of the gallery provided the occasional shot from above.
The intimate, plain and brightly lit stage was a kind of reverse black box: a white box of unremarkable features that allowed concentration to rest on the performances.
The quality of the camerawork was very good with only one missed shot.
The performance began quite abruptly as the director cut away from some pre-show chat to the sight of Gloucester, Edmund and Kent striding onto the stage. This was intended to reproduce the theatre experience in which the first scene begins unannounced while the audience is still chattering away.
However, the broadcast did lose one key feature that was obvious to Donmar audiences: the sweating and reddening of Jacobi’s face in moments of anger. Sat in the auditorium, you could not fail to notice his skin tone changing to traffic light red as he blustered; in the cinema, even in HD, this did not come across.
Close-ups were used to highlight the intimacy of Lear and Edgar (as Poor Tom), with whom Lear showed an immediate fascination that soon prompted jealous, attention-seeking behaviour from his Fool.
Use was also made of over the shoulder reaction shots, with a distant character being brought into focus reacting to a conversation among two characters closer to the camera.
The director also gave us a close-up shot of Gina McKee unbuttoning her top in order to retrieve her necklace before using it to adorn Edmund.
But the necessity of choosing one particular view sometimes means the loss of some subtle moments when, as an audience member, you can flick your gaze effortlessly from one part of the stage to another and put together a composite picture of action and reaction.
This was the case in the scene at Gloucester’s house where Regan, after initially refusing to speak to Lear, entered to confront him. The King began to draw the Fool close to him for emotional support. But seeing his daughter arriving, he instinctively withdrew from his companion as if ashamed of appearing weak in front of her. This moment in performance provided a clue to the character’s pride and vanity, but was not conveyed by the broadcast.
In the theatre it was possible to focus one’s attention on Lear and his Fool as well as the approaching Regan. A live broadcast, however, cannot change views with the same agility as the human eye.
The fluidity of the production, with characters entering rapidly on the two downstage walkways, kept up the kind of pace that television and cinema audiences expect from edited productions. In this way, an effect designed to be pleasing in the auditorium also produced a satisfying result in the broadcast.
Despite the technical problems, the first Donmar broadcast was a great success. This live transmission from the venue was more rewarding than those I have seen from the cavernous Olivier Theatre.
It was also nice to have Emma Freud, the thinking man’s Davina McCall, doing the presenting. She is a natural for the job because she seems genuinely excited at seeing the productions.
NT Live: Hamlet, Greenwich Picturehouse, 9 December 2010
Despite some technical problems, the NT Live broadcast of Hamlet managed to convey much of what had caused audiences to rave about the production. Compared with the in-theatre experience it was still a poor second, but these mediated images of the stage did provide the occasional fresh perspective and elucidating beam of light.
Things got off to a confusing start. The cameras made the dark stage look even murkier than it actually was, and pointing a camera accurately in such conditions was also difficult. So for the first few minutes of the opening scene we saw some rapidly changing and indistinct close-up shots of the Elsinore guards. The effect was profoundly disorienting. Whereas the theatre audience would have seen a group of people moving into a space, the cinema audience saw individuals with no explanatory context.
Then the sound of the vision mixer’s voice began to bleed through into the audio. Besides the general irritation, it became especially annoying when Hamlet asked a question and her muted voice filled the ensuing pause with a string a numbers as if in reply.
A “No signal” error message appeared on screen after a short while, from which point onwards the picture and sound were slightly out of synch. This added to the artificiality of the cinema experience as it acted as a reminder that we were watching a composite of an audio stream and a video stream.
This problem was rectified for the start of the second half of the performance, only to recur and send us back into badly-dubbed mode.
Thankfully there was only one moment where we had an Acorn Antiques shot with the camera pointing at nothing in particular.
For anyone who had seen the original stage production, the NT Live broadcast was definitely no substitute. But it was in some ways a useful adjunct.
The stage production had only one flaw. Making Elsinore a contemporary autocracy made us feel a more lively sense of injustice than if we had been presented with the same system in an historical or non-specific setting. The modern and overtly political context of the production de-emphasised the more thoughtful, philosophical musings of the main character. This Hamlet was wrestling with Big Brother rather than with Big Questions.
But in the broadcast the close-up shots of Hamlet in soliloquy effectively abstracted him from this setting. These images of the prince alone with his thoughts allowed us to consider their general import beyond this particular staging.
This was most strikingly in evidence during the Yorick soliloquy. Instead of being a man in an anorak on his way back from England to a 21st century autocracy, Hamlet in close-up became an Everyman in his contemplation of Yorick’s and his own mortality . This could have been achieved unaided by camerawork if the existential element had not been overridden by the political context of this production.
The camera also allowed us to see some of the detail of Rory Kinnear’s performance that even a good front row seat could not have provided.
When Horatio expressed his horror at Hamlet’s account of meeting the ghost of his dead father, describing it as “wondrous strange”, the camera enabled us to see clearly the effervescent delight with which Hamlet replied “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”. He launched into his lines about heaven and earth containing more things than are dreamt of in their philosophy in the same upbeat mood.
The broadcast also gave us a glimpse of a delightful detail that could not have been visible to the theatre audience and which could only have been a private joke within the production.
While Hamlet was sat in his trunk making fun of Polonius, the cover of the book he was reading momentarily came into clear view. It was a copy of the Penguin edition of Montaigne’s Essays. Subsequent checking revealed that the same book had been used in the publicity photos of that scene. This proved that the book was not a random choice, but a volume consistently selected to be Hamlet’s favourite reading.
Scholars have theorised that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s Essays as traces of the ideas they contain can be seen in Hamlet’s thoughts. Having the prince actually read this volume on stage was a knowing but occluded wink at this theory.
The director was able to use camera angles to group together elements on stage to suggest a connection between them that might not have occurred to an audience. Specific shots also effectively increased or decreased the apparent size of individual characters.
This could be seen when Hamlet lay dying. A camera positioned stage left gave us a shot of the bodies of Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude in a line cutting the screen diagonally in half with the small crouched figures of Hamlet and Horatio seemingly trapped beneath them on the left side of the picture.
The final shot in the broadcast looked diagonally across the stage from the opposite corner, with Hamlet and Horatio looming large at the bottom of the screen. The fencing piste stretched away into the distance with the new master of Denmark and his followers exiting as small, insignificant figures.
My third view of the production brought a few previously unremarked details to my attention. I noticed Ophelia’s reticence bordering on fear when her father told her that they would have to inform the king of Hamlet’s condition. This dread Ophelia had for Claudius nicely foreshadowed the actual harm the production heavily suggested he caused her.
In her mad scene Ophelia’s shopping trolley gave her a concrete point of reference when saying “O, how the wheel becomes it!” She presented a doll to Gertrude which she called “a daisy”. It is quite possible that in the world of the play the doll was actually a brand name “Daisy” along the lines of real-world brands Barbie and Cindy.
Whereas David Tennant’s Hamlet had exited for England drugged and strapped to a chair shouting “Weeee!” Rory Kinnear skipped away singing a hornpipe.
When asking whether a freshly exhumed skull might be that of a lawyer, Hamlet offered up a jocular prayer of supplication that his theory might be proved correct.
I was relieved to see that host Emma Freud had put on one of the Villain t-shirts over her top to deliver her final words after the performance had ended. I had got into the spirit of the event by wearing my Villain shirt in the same way. It was comforting to think that someone else had seen the potential fun in becoming part of Team Hamlet.