Turning a telescope on Planet Falstaff

1 Henry IV, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 25 July 2011
1 Henry IV, Greenwich Picturehouse, 6 August 2011
2 Henry IV, Greenwich Picturehouse, 7 August 2011
2 Henry IV, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 18 August 2011

Seeing a play at the Globe is a 360° experience, especially in the yard. The open-air auditorium provides uniform lighting of audience and actors, and everything about the theatre engenders a real feeling of connection with the onstage action. One is left with abiding memories of an all-encompassing spectacle of sight, sound and smell.

So there is inevitably a process of adjustment when viewing a recording of a Globe play on a cinema screen. No matter how big and detailed the image and whatever surround sound effects are deployed, compared with one’s own memories of being there, it feels like observing the play through a telescope.

The dislocation is even more pronounced than for other theatre broadcasts, such as NT Live. Because the latter are mostly from traditional theatres with the audience in darkness, the screen version more closely approximates to the theatrical experience.

I spent a total of 12 hours viewing both of the three-hour productions twice. This was rewarding not just because the plays were very good, but also because extended exposure facilitated an adjustment to the 2D digital version, making it possible to appreciate the recordings on their own terms.

The brilliance of the productions and their performances shone through. Revisiting these Henry IV plays felt like getting reacquainted with old friends, with Roger Allam’s Falstaff still the life and soul of the party.

I was particularly struck by the start of Part Two where Jack entered to great acclaim from the people of London. The citizens were all singing a ballad praising him as the hero of the battle of Shrewsbury, despite the fact he had been an arrant coward, providing an excellent example of the power of rumour addressed in the prologue. Falstaff gestured with his hand alternately raising and subduing the cheers of welcome from the audience.

The quality of the direction and camerawork were excellent. There were only a couple of fluffed lines throughout the entire six hours. In a way they added to the raw authenticity of this live performance recording.

Sometimes, however, the vagaries of live performance throw up moments of unintentional comedy.

During the first half of Part One, a young man in the lower gallery on the stage left side could be seen listening to music through earphones and strumming the balustrade in front of him with his fingers, completely ignoring the play. Other times when he was not so active, he rested face down on the balustrade. He and the rest of his party left at the interval.

The Mummers’ Plays that began each of the two parts were not recorded, which was regrettable as they set the scene in the theatre very effectively. This was probably because the cameras were set up to record action on the main stage and so could not be used to film the small stage in the yard where these simple rustic entertainments took place. However, the start of Part Two showed the end of its Mummers’ Play, with the cast in bawdy costumes entering the main stage as the multiple manifestations of Rumour.

The two cinemas differed in their provision of an interval. The Showcase Bluewater provided a break during both screenings, and even an ice-cream seller at the first screening.

Adopting a less customer-friendly approach, the Greenwich Picturehouse continued right the way through both parts with no interval. Three hours without a break was a bit too much. But on the other hand, the Greenwich Picturehouse did provide programme sheets for both screenings, which was a plus point.

The Globe has done theatre lovers everywhere a great favour. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the 2010 Henry IVs constituted a landmark in the performance history of the plays. The fact that they have been captured and preserved digitally will enable them to be enjoyed down the years, so that future generations can see what all the fuss was about.

The onus is now on the Globe to maintain this high standard. Fortunately, they seem to be on a winning streak, with many of their recorded plays (e.g. As You Like It, the Henry IVs and this year’s Much Ado with Eve Best) enjoying both critical acclaim and large audiences.

All that remains now is for the Henry IV productions to be released on disc. It will be interesting to test whether home viewing of a high-definition Blu-ray on a 46” flat panel provides a more detailed and more immersive experience than these cinema screenings.

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One thought on “Turning a telescope on Planet Falstaff

  1. I can’t wait for Merry Wives, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry VIII to be released on DVD. I want to get all of them.

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