Stage v. Screen

A while ago I got into a heated debate with a film buff about the respective merits of stage and screen. He claimed that there was nothing you could produce on stage that wouldn’t be better in a film. As an avid theatre fan, I couldn’t let that go… Don’t get me wrong, I think that TV and film are great and offer opportunities to portray things differently than in the theatre. But theatre, although not better than television or film, is a unique and relevant medium.

There are obvious constraints generated when locating a performance on stage, live and without the benefit of editing, but writing for the stage need not restrict what you can portray. Ghost the Musical demonstrates the amazing possibilities for stage effects, with ghost Sam walking through a wall on stage. Similarly, Danton’s Death at the National Theatre had a breathtakingly realistic guillotine scene which was so effective that it was almost distracting as I struggled to spot how it was done.

While there is plenty of inventive television and film, the unique conditions of the stage often require more imagination, from both audience and creators. I find it amazing how easy it is when watching a great production to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the narrative, often with minimal set or props. The ingenuity of theatre-makers is nowhere better exemplified than by the National Theatre production of War Horse. Although the Spielberg film had real horses, trenches, and spectacular views of the English countryside, it wasn’t able to capture the emotion or atmosphere of the play. The horse puppets are extraordinary and are operated so skilfully that you believe they are real, and the beautiful backdrop of illustrations creates an amazing atmosphere.

The Woman in Black is another film which I enjoyed, with Daniel Radcliffe giving an engaging performance which retained my interest despite the horror narrative being little more than a series of things that make you jump. But again, I feel that the stage production (as well as being more true to the book) has an atmosphere that can only be achieved in the theatre. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, as two actors narrate and act out the entire plot through a clever conceit involving Kipps enlisting a young actor to help him to recount his story.  Despite the lack of props and cast members, the play is scary in a way that the film wasn’t, with the proximity of the performance adding to the tension. The idea of a haunted theatre is much scarier when you’re sitting in the auditorium…

Aside from the practical considerations, theatrical performances create a unique shared experience between audience and performers. One of the joys of theatre is that a show is different each time, as actors play with their performance and react to the audience response.

Bearing all this is mind, I’m still looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation of Les Mis. I didn’t hold particularly high hopes for the film when they announced the array of famous actors (less famous for their singing) in the cast, although many of them have had experience in musical theatre. But it seems to have held its own with the critics – and certainly done rather better critically than the musical did when it first opened. As a fan of the stage version, and a big fan of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, I’ll be interested to see how the story and score transfer to the screen.

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People

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Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.

There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.

Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.

This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.

Scenes From An Execution

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Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution at the National Theatre paints an interesting portrait of the Venetian state as a superb propaganda machine, shaping its image both at home and abroad through the patronage of civic art; in this case a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The state expects an epic painting celebrating the glory of Venice and her victory, the justness of Venice’s cause. Galactia, commissioned to complete the painting, understands this – but is instead intent on exploring the horror and devastation of the battle.

The doge and his government find the picture not only distasteful and misleading, but treasonous – they throw Galactia into prison as a statement of their disapproval. These conflicting views of the War allow for an interesting debate about the morality of war, as well as the role and power of art and patronage, with the establishment represented in various forms by the doge and also by a critic.

There is an article in the programme about the evolution of the female painter, although this is under-explored in the play – Galactia’s gender obviously influences how she is treated, but there is little direct reference to this. Yet the role of gender in Venetian society at this time is fascinating, and could have been made more prominent.

The play’s conclusion shows the Venetian government bending the situation to their advantage as they take ownership of Galactia’s painting, hypocritically using it to display their ‘tolerance’. This again plays on the question of who controls the meaning of art – the painter or the owner (the viewers seem pretty keen to accept the line of the doge, although that may be because it fits with the view of Venice that they have been fed all their life).

This is all held together by an astonishing performance by the excellent Fiona Shaw; it’s worth going to see for her alone, although the supporting characters are sometimes a bit bland and underdeveloped. Overall it’s an intriguing look at sixteenth-century Venetian art, although its ideas are more prominent than its characters.

Twelfth Night at the Globe

When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.

Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

 Having both really enjoyed the book when it first came out, the National Theatre’s charming adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had a lot to live up to, but it didn’t disappoint me and my friend Amy when we saw it this week at the Cottesloe.

Luke Treadaway gave an astonishing performance as Christopher, the 15-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome who discovers his neighbour’s murdered dog and sets out to investigate the crime. His abrupt and persistent questioning unearths rather more than he had intended, and soon family issues are added to his case. Treadaway was believable and likeable as a boy who struggles to understand the world around him, and is in turn misunderstood by those he meets. While at times Christopher resorts to violence and physical coping mechanisms, he can also be very articulate as he explains his difficulties in coping with the chaos of the world.

The dramatisation of the novel, which was written as though by Christopher, means that there is more opportunity to empathise with those around Christopher, in particular his parents, who are struggling to cope with his behaviour. Both Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter gave nuanced depictions of parents who want the best for their son but are struggling to deal with the demands his behaviour places upon them, and are sometimes pushed over the edge (a metaphor that the very literal Christopher would struggle to understand). The distantness of Christopher from his parents makes the moments when they connect with him all the more poignant.

The staging was excellent, and encapsulated the ordered and clinical nature of Christopher’s world, as well as providing the backdrop for numerous changes of scene. The production was dynamic, and I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting Christopher’s imaginary career as a astronaut and his foray into the threatening world of the train station. Both brought to life the way that Christopher experiences the world. In the programme, Mark Haddon provides an interesting commentary on his novel, while Marcus du Sautoy discusses Christopher’s interest in mathematics and Simon Baron-Cohen expands on the characteristics of Asperger Syndrome.

For those interested in autism, the BBC recently showed an excellent documentary on children with autism, which demonstrated the broad range of characteristics that the spectrum covers. It also gave the perspective of those around someone with autism, and further explores the effect that it can have on daily life.

The National’s production made use of the benefits that dramatisation brings, to tell Christopher’s story to the best advantage; it is a faithful adaptation that, while a different experience to reading the book, is equally as good and it has definitely inspired me to reread the novel.

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre has produced Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as part of the London 2012 Festival and, as with the BBC’s Shakespearean offerings, has provided a lot of extra material that makes the play more accessible. In the Olivier Exhibition Space The Making of Timon has been produced in association with the British Museum, who is also holding an exhibition of its own – Shakespeare: staging the world. The National’s exhibition covers both the world that Shakespeare was writing in and the processes involved in the making of the new production.

While the section on Shakespeare’s world was interesting, what really caught my attention was the part of the exhibition focussing on the National Theatre’s production. It was fascinating to see how props were constructed, the designs for the set, as well as rehearsal schedules and annotated scripts. It was also interesting to hear from those involved in different capacities in the production and see their perspectives on the play and their jobs.

National Theatre programmes are always informative and good value, but the Timon programme is particularly good. There is an article by Peter Holland on the play, an extract from Simon Russel Beale on acting Shakespeare and a collection of views on Timon from contributors including Karl Marx. All were helpful, not presuming that you already know anything but not dumbing-down either.

While I have nothing but praise for the content accompanying the production, I have to admit that I was less taken with the performance itself. I found it all a bit soulless and emotionless. Perhaps the play’s focus on materialism, and the shallowness of the characters’ lives and friendships, made this inevitable. I’m not sure that the problems I had aren’t intrinsic to the play; none of the characters are especially likeable and there isn’t really much action. The National’s production, set in the modern period, was nicely designed with minimal but expensive-looking sets and Simon Russel Beale did give a good performance as Timon, with the presence to carry the production.

I think that more theatres should follow the National Theatre’s example in providing extra support material for their productions. The Globe is also very good at this, and always has excellent articles in its programmes. As someone who has only been attending the theatre for a few years, and is eager to learn more about the productions I see, I am always grateful for informative programmes. Programmes and exhibitions such as the National’s are invaluable in ensuring that everyone in the audience gets as much from the performance as they can.

The Last of the Haussmans

Having last Tuesday watched the distinctly average Rock of Ages, this week I was reminded of the power of a good play at the National Theatre. The Last of the Haussmans, Stephen Beresford’s first play, had plenty of laughs as well as some rather poignant moments. As a brother and sister return to their decaying family home to assist their terminally ill mother, long-standing tensions rise to the surface and the characters crumble under the pressure of their increasingly complicated circumstances.

Each of the characters was deftly fleshed out by the excellent cast; Kinnear’s delightfully camp junkie Nick is obviously troubled, but Helen McCrory as his sister Libby, while apparently more grounded, is also facing her own problems (many of them relating to her rebellious daughter Summer). Walters was perfectly suited to the role of aging hippy Judy, overseeing the family drama (much of which she has created) while trying to hang onto the freedom and idealism of her youth.

The Last of the Haussmans at times explicitly questions the Sixties generation and the lack of impact that their idealism had, and explores the lost hopes of their more radical days. As Nick points out, once ardent proponents of freedom and peace, many of his mother’s contemporaries have scaled back their aspirations and are running donkey sanctuaries. Yet the play is in the main a depiction of the fraught relations within this dysfunctional family, as the impact of the Sixties generation is explored implicitly through the lasting repercussions of Judy’s lifestyle on her children. Nick and Libby’s drug use and casual sex demonstrate some of the more lasting cultural legacies of the Sixties, even if politically it was superseded by Thatcherism and New Labour.

Even without the general issues that The Last of the Haussmans raises, the family politics would be enough to sustain the play; the questions surrounding the legacy of the Sixties are interesting, but more importantly the drama is thoroughly entertaining. Considering that this is Beresford’s first play, I think that we can expect to see plenty more of him in the future.