Wind stops play at the Donmar

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.


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