Monthly Archives: July 2020

Saving Lockdown: National Theatre at Home and the Future of Audience Engagement

National Theatre at Home (by Richard Hubert Smith, Johan Persson, Catherine Ashmore and Tristram Kenton)

Hero and villain, roles the National Theatre finds itself cast in again and again, often at the same time; its name and funded status as a nationwide theatre means that while its tours and community-developed pieces such as A Taste of Honey and the Theatre Nation Partnerships are often feted, its London programme announcements often meet a tide of denunciation, as the failure to represent diversity or to adequately balance its schedule of classic and new work comes under fire. During lockdown, the National Theatre has been lambasted for announcing front of house staff redundancies in spite of an (as yet) unclear portion of the government fund. Given, the NT’s position and mission at the forefront of UK theatre, it is not unreasonable that such public scrutiny should be applied to its creative decision-making and financial management.

Yet, the National Theatre has also been a lockdown saviour, the first to offer archive content via a Youtube channel that allowed its productions to be viewed almost anywhere in the world. And all for free. We flocked to it, 15 million views in 173 countries, an inestimable reach that will open all kinds of debates about the democratisation of theatre. Four months on and audiences are now taking online streaming for granted, spoiled by the volume of material available across the arts from theatre to dance, opera and concert performances, to fringe, pub theatres, regional venues and major West End playhouses. Arguably, the National Theatre’s March announcement set the bar for theatre engagement during lockdown, a time when no one imagined closure would last this long.

16 weeks later, the National has shared 16 productions with its community, a collective viewing reach of millions of individuals around the world. The decision to call time on the National Theatre at Home scheme is sad but reasonable, online theatre cannot be free forever and now is a suitable time to reflect on the choice of productions, how selections changed as a longer period of lockdown became clear and what this new method of outreach could mean for future theatre engagement with its audiences.

This is not the first time that the National Theatre has been at the forefront of a period of disruptive innovation, one that doom-mongers warned could signal the end of live theatre. Established in 2009, NT Live has radically transformed the cultural landscape, ushering in a golden age of accessibility for UK audiences unable to travel to, and crucially even afford, West End prices. There are schemes enough to ensure low priced ticket allocations but the additional cost of travel, accommodation, food and sustenance can make the journey to London a prohibitive one. NT Live did away with all that, opening-up the experience of theatre to a much wider community through partnerships with and relays to the cinema screen.

It can be  divisive, many will insist that nothing can replicate the feeling of live theatre, of being in the room. And, feeling the atmosphere alter around you can be a magical experience. But, as the National Theatre at Home screenings have reminded us, the growing technical skill of the NT Live camera crew and directors have brought audiences as close as they can, providing viewing angles or close-proximity visuals unavailable to the live audience – Danny Boyle’s exciting overhead camera-work for Frankenstein (Week 5) is a case in point. Equally, anyone who has experienced the same show in both forms can attest to the expertise of the NT Live team – the screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, held a power that enraptured cinema audiences in February  who were equally thrilled by it, the silver screen enhancing the experience with technical choices and shot selection that created intense, slow close-ups which understood and expanded on the underlying purpose Lloyd’s interpretation.

Programming the Season 

The first announcement came in March, with the hugely successful One Man, Two Governors opening the season; it was truly event theatre as a million people tuned in within the first 24-hours, a feeling of commonality stretching between laptops across the country as we all switched on at 7pm that Thursday night, together apart. Three more shows – Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night would follow, shows that were enjoyable but not quite in the top tier of National Theatre productions. Then as a Spring and Summer of theatre closures loomed the National Theatre got serious.

Huge announcements of high profile productions followed, showcasing some of the very best work of the last decade – Frankenstein was a marvel offering both versions in the same week, the ripple of excitement that accompanied the news that The Barbershop Chronicles (Week 7), A Streetcar Named Desire (Week 8), This House (Week 9) and Coriolanus (Week 10) would provide a glorious mid-season high, and as the Black Lives Matters protests dominated debate, a more diverse final show selection from The Madness of King George III (Week 11) to Small Island (Week 12) the smouldering brilliance of The Deep Blue Sea (Week 15) and the joyous strangeness of Amadeus (Week 16) – a fitting conclusion that revealed the operatic grandeur of the Olivier Theatre and the huge resources of the National deployed in music, costume, direction and performance.

Across the 16 weeks we have seen four Shakespeare plays and seven contemporary plays, new at the time of recording. The vast majority of them came from NT Live captures while The Barbershop Chronicles was an archive recording in the Dorfman, seven were set before and four during the twentieth-century with five in modern or timeless locations. There were five comedies, two American playwrights and four book adaptations. We were transported to Ancient Egypt and Rome, a 1950s boarding house, eighteenth-century courts, 1970s Westminster, the nineteenth-century Yorkshire moors, colonial Africa, magical woodlands, a sultry apartment in New Orleans and the seaside all without leaving our bedrooms. We laughed at pseudo-1950s farce, became swept up in wars of oppression and conquest, shed tears for grand lovers, ruined musicians, tragic monarchs and caged women while rejoicing at the humanity of it all. This is the power of theatre and it was all completely free.

The Future of Theatre Engagement

So how does all of this affect what we might see in the future. Certainly in the short-term, the industry may adopt a hybrid model with performances happening live in socially distant theatre spaces as with the forthcoming Jesus Christ Superstar concert and the new Sleepless in Seattle musical, while others will continue to pursue the creation of new digital content either through live relay as the Old Vic’s In Camera series is pioneering, or as films created under lockdown conditions and streamed to Youtube.

Perhaps there is even a way for the two to come together, a socially distanced audience for those who can and feel comfortable attending a live performance with a limited run which could also be streamed online via a pay-wall – exactly how a National Theatre Live evening usually works where the cameras are arranged so as not to impede the viewer in the room but take the show to hundreds of cinema screens, or in this case laptops, across the UK.

But, the real impact of National Theatre at Home has been to change our relationship with venues and the creative forces behind each show. The first cast reunion happened in response to One Man Two Guvnors, a 30-minute chat on 7 April that has been viewed 145,000 times. The idea was replicated down the months, Twelfth Night  (Week 4) and Antony and Cleopatra (Week 6) soon followed, while both Small Island and Les Blancs (Week 14) held panel sessions on the issues raised in both plays, helping them to respond to the changing social climate in which the screenings were now taking place.

The concept really took off in Week 10, when the National Theatre opened-up its offering to include shows recorded in other venues. Director Josie Rourke and lead Tom Hiddleston provided a live Instagram commentary with contributions from other cast members throughout the 2.5 hour runtime of Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Later uploaded to Youtube, it proved a fascinating conversation with insight into the decision-making process as Rourke and Hiddleston’s wide-ranging discussion covered literary aspects of the text, the classical context of Ancient Roman society and the technical elements of building a character, stage design and physical movement that fed into the performance. A 30-minute post-show discussion also available on the National Theatre’s Youtube channel has been watched more than 86,000 times while the Bridge Theatre’s anecdote-filled A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Week 13) cast reunion has had almost 40,000 views.

Video trailers and talking heads have long been part of theatre promotional strategies but filmed post-show discussions may have more traction or could even replace the rather stale content in the traditional programme. If audiences want to understand more about a production buying a programme will only tell you so much with venues retaining a decades-old approach – a couple of academic essays on the play’s origins or themes, usually a chronological life of the author and the creative team biographies. In 2020, if a theatre-goer wants an essay on the themes of Hamlet or the defiance of Noel Coward, the Internet can provide all your needs, what it can’t tell you is why particular production decisions were made.

These cast reunion and live commentary videos tell us that thousands of people want to know more about the specific choices creatives make in bringing their version of a play to life; why did the director and designer want to set Julius Caesar in a 1970s carpet warehouse, by what process does an actor in the cast build their role using the text, knowledge of past performance, socio-political experience of the era and instinct, and what are the challenges of lighting a moody Sondheim musical in a space as large as the Olivier Theatre? A modern programme should help to translate these choices to the audience, putting the creative teams we all admire at the centre of theatre outreach, their work does not begin and end in the performance space. And it needn’t just be digital content, programme essays could come from costume or set designers explaining how a character’s style and fabric choices respond to the themes of the play or how soundscaping is used across the show to mark changes in the emotional rhythm of the story.

From The Grinning Man to the cast of Smash during lockdown Zoom discussions have almost become the norm, a chance to relive the excitment of seeing the show but also to understand more about the process of making it. These activities are the equivalent of DVD extras for theatre lovers and the future of theatre engagement has to be in reaching out across the fourth wall, something modern audiences are clearly hungry for. This closure period has given us a renewed appreciation for the writers, directors, technical specialists, performers and musicians that make theatre for us, so forget the dry academic essays because it is their skill in interpreting and reimagining stories for us that we really want to read about. The National Theatre really did save lockdown and made us appreciate our phenomenal creative industries, but they may also have inadvertently pointed the way for the future as surely as National Theatre Live did in 2009.

National Theatre at Home ran from 02 April to 23 July 2020. Cast reunion and other videos are available on National Theatre Youtube Channel. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Shifting Tides Festival – Almeida Theatre

Shifting Tides Festival (Almeida Theatre)

The Almeida Theatre has had a very different lockdown strategy to other arts organisations; it hasn’t delved into its performance archive to released old production recordings online, they haven’t organised play readings or interviews via video calling platforms and there has been no cast reunion Zoom chats. Instead the Almeida’s response to theatre closures has been to look internally at its own community, creating a number of very insightful podcast interviews in which Artistic Director Rupert Goold speaks to actors, writers, directors and composers for around 45-minutes – these have been particularly valuable to those interested in the technical aspects theatre-making with insights from Indira Varma and Tobias Menzies on their opposing approach to rehearsals and character creation, and from director Rebecca Frecknall on the influences that came together in Summer and Smoke.

But, the Shifting Tides Festival running from 16th-18th July was the Almeida’s first new content-based event comprising three days of play readings, film screenings, debates and artistic responses on the theme of art and climate activism. Aimed at 16-25 year olds with much of the content generated, performed and discussed by early career creatives in association with young activists and the Almeida Young Company (14-18) in more ways than one, this impassioned event had its eyes firmly on the future.

As theatres are permitted to resume indoor performances, there has been considerable fear about what the next months and years will look like; can audiences expect monologues and two-handers to dominate the drama programme until social distancing can be removed, and will risk averse production companies and funders only greenlight shows guaranteed to make money, thereby silencing a generation of new voices, experiences and performers whose contribution to the theatre ecosystem is as vital as the well-known stage stars.

This three day Almeida Festival was an important opportunity to be heard at a time of significant youth activism starting with the 2019 Extinction Rebellion occupations of central London and leading to the Black Lives Matters marches of recent weeks. What do the arts contribute to the debate on Climate Change and how in particular can theatre, film and creative media reflect and respond to environmental activism? This core question ran through the event with a programme of panel discussions built around two major artistic responses to this question. The first was a three part audio drama penned by playwright Ben Weatherill performed by Almeida Young Company (14-18) and the second a 15-minute comedy film about the Extinction Rebellion Protest, taking a slightly different perspective on the climate crisis.

Extinction: Film Screening

Written by Jack Cooper Stimpson and Sam Haygarth, this short film was created during the Extinction Rebellion protests in April 2019, taking three days to shoot close to the action. It focuses on what was then intended to be a fictional encounter between the protesters and a government representative as they try to agree a peaceable solution to the occupation of London’s bridges and streets – little did the creators know that art would mirror life and before completing their work a real meeting would take place. Written as a comedy, there is nonsense on all sides as the stuffy world of Whitehall collides with the impassioned bluntness of Extinction Rebellion’s spokespeople.

The changing nature of that exchange becomes one of Extinction’s most enjoyable aspects as the refined formality of Heeba (Rakhee Thakrar) waits awkwardly for her tardy colleague Sam played by Tom Glynn-Carney while politician David Grant (Nicholas Rowe) and his assistant Flo (Charlotte Hamblin) dominate the rather formal meeting space. As the late arrival shambles in, the tone slowly begins to shift and other characters unexpectedly intrude on the discussion, changing the visual impression of the room with their protest symbols and practical clothing, pushing the agenda from respectful conversation to angry debate.

The sense of chaos that Cooper Stimpson creates as director builds extremely well, reflecting the growing frustration of the protesters as the MP pays lip service to their cause without committing to defined action and Rowe is particularly good in charting his character’s sense of beleaguered irritation, forced to meet with Extinction Rebellion and sympathetic to the issues they raise but with no formal power to act or negotiate. That people “aren’t ready for the truth” is explosively extracted from him when the raucous delegates metaphorically surround him and the writers’ decision to retain a shred of sympathy for this character adds a valuable balance – in the ensuing Q&A there was acknowledged fault on all sides.

That empathy extends to the protesters whose arguments range from saving animals and the Venice canals to getting lost in ludicrous Star Wars analogies on the power dynamics in the room. Led by “Emma”, a long-term activist expressing a weary knowledge of government personnel, the hint of long-game political engagement is an interesting one and the need to keep fighting. With a surprise appearance from Emma Thompson, who appeared on the pink boat at Oxford Circus around the same time, Gary Beadle and Will Brown there is plenty of acting gravitas here which combined with the energetic shots of the busy protest in the fervent first phase, make for an entertaining short with a strong message about the gap between government declarations and a subsequent failure to act.

By their own admission, this young production team had an average age of around 25, and during the Q&A spoke with urgency about the environmental problem and how it inspired their own engagement with climate activism. Pertinent to the current theatre crisis, the panel discussed how difficult it can be to get political work funded, noting that Extinction was rejected by a film festival with an aviation sponsor – the politics of the film industry as complex off screen as on. The Covid crisis, actor Charlotte Hamblin explained, is already setting back sustainability measures on set, and, in the spirit of the Shifting Tides Festival, how this will affect the careers of the young creatives remains to be seen.

As Waters Rise (Audio Play)

Ben Weatherill, whose play Jellyfish opened to much acclaim at the National Theatre last year, has written a semi-apocalyptic story of life after the River Thames has flooded, an event that has destroyed parts of London, disproportionately affecting the poorer communities while the rich of Hampstead Hill continue to thrive. Set in 2025, this three-part audio drama opens with snippets of information from news casts and Prime Ministerial speeches, and concentrates on the experience of a group of young people caught up in the aftermath of this event. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the same picture, combining to form a recognisable yet marginally, and worryingly different, impression of the society we know. The UK has not magically transformed – this is not the ruined robotic future of The Terminator or Blade Runner, instead, like Russell T. Davis’s Years and Years, Weatherill offers a slightly warped version of existing normality.

Written originally to be performed in the theatre and now repurposed as an audio experience, Episode One sets the scene, introducing a group of teenagers differently affected by the crisis. Zack has lost his mum – one of six victims – and has been rehoused in a hotel, joining a daily queue for clothes and food, while his friends discuss the latest pop star and why they hate the aggressive Lily. Weatherill’s focus is on the inequality of major events, how they disproportionately affect poorer members of society and BAME communities, here interpreted through the analogy of the flood but could equally apply to the Covid crisis.  But The Other Side of the River (the title of Episode One) is a personal story about friendship, thoughtlessness and the pressures of the social media age.

Running throughout the drama is an activist angle, asking what individuals can do to manage the consequences of political decisions, redressing the balance between rich and poor as well as tackling the climate change issue head on. In Episode One, this manifests as a planned criminal act, the decision making and build-up to it focusing the drama while personal enmities play out. Weatherill uses this to humanise his story, orientating wilder developments around the complex personal connections within the group, making this a piece ideally suited to the Almeida Young Company (14-18).

Episode Two: Near the Surface has a stronger political angle, drawing a darker picture of the governmental and structural implications affecting the UK in the aftermath of the flood. Set in a reform group for young offenders, Josh heads a 12-week educative course called Prevent, aimed at anyone who has spoken out against the government on environmental issues in any form, from wearing a slogan t-shirt to writing defamatory essays. The growing backdrop of Orwellian control that Weatherill introduces is subtle but vivd, painting a picture of growing repression and reactionary clamp-down escalating from the 2020 pandemic through to the flood era.

Set largely in the group sessions, it follows Beth whose mother was a victim of the disaster as she is encouraged to make a stand at a Governmental Climate Change Conference in front of the  Prime Minister. This episode is especially gripping as Weatherill emphasises the value of the individual and particular the power of words to encourage change. Referencing some of the famous speeches of the past 100 years demanding rights, in just 35-minutes Beth’s trajectory takes her from reticent member of the group, to someone who understands the power of saying the right thing at the right moment.

The final episode Coming Up for Air is the least overtly political of them all, focusing on an orientation exercise in which a group of young people must navigate through the natural landscape to the finishing point. As a story about collaboration, fear and friendship it works well, while nodding to some of the issues Weatherill has previously raised, particularly on the lasting legacy of the flood for those who lost parents. But the point here is a hopeful one, that by working together and respecting the natural world that a balance between human existence and sustainability is achievable.

There is a wealth of material on the Shifting Tides Festival website including poetry of protest and art responses  created by  young activists on the topic of climate change and culture, as well as Open Submissions of poems, short plays and a further short film from Ella Road (Something Will Disappear). The message from all of these different products is clear, that art has a major role to play in telling the truth to audiences, creating awareness and reflecting the nuances, difficulties and consequences of the climate debate, as well as questioning the terminology used to describe it.

Above all, the Shifting Tides Festival has a strong message for a theatre industry that in the coming months and years might be tempted to play it safe with known productions and trusted performers. This diverse collection of young writers, directors, performers, poets and content creators are fighting for all kinds of change, they believe a different future is possible and nothing is going to stop them achieving it.

The Shifting Tides Festival ran from 16-18 July and As Waters Rise is still available on the Almeida website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

‘To Be or Not to Be’ – Contemplations of Mortality in The Deep Blue Sea

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (by Richard Hubert Smith)

As the National Theatre streams its wonderful 2016 production of Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea it is timely to consider what a significant role Hester Collyer is for an actor. In a play framed by the protagonist’s suicide attempts and steeped in the consequences of the Second World War for the surrounding characters, what on one level is a story of soured forbidden love is in essence a discussion of life and death. While it would be excessive to suggest that the role of Hester is equivalent to Shakespeare’s most famous grief-stricken character, there are, nonetheless, overlapping themes with Hamlet that are worth exploring.

For a long time, the wider power of Rattigan’s play was dismissed or at best reduced to a thinly veiled dramatisation of the suicide of his former lover Kenneth Morgan, while it’s central character was considered to be little more than a hysterical woman. And while Rattigan naturally drew on his real experience, The Deep Blue Sea is far more sophisticated than a mere pastiche, bringing an empathetic understanding not just of the liberating and overwhelming emotions that the once sheltered Hester feels for Freddie but of the extremely limited opportunities for women of her class in the early 1950s which seek to further confine her.

While the play is about the destructive nature of passionate infatuation, the shadow of death fills every corner of it. Death haunts this play as surely as it does Hamlet until almost the last moment when 24-hours in Hester’s life comes to its ultimate conclusion. Everywhere she turns the effects of her suicide attempt which opens the play confront her – in meetings with her former husband, with her lover Freddie and with the army of concerned neighbours who pass through the flat to check on her throughout this period – while the long postponed conversations about her deteriorating relationship presage another form of death to come, the nature of which she must choose as the play unfolds.

Hester, like Hamlet, must grapple with circumstances she now feels are beyond her control, that in the space of a few months her everyday life has so altered that continuing it becomes unbearable. As Hamlet faces his father’s death and the too rapid progress of his mother’s second marriage – a change he cannot reconcile – Hester, at the start of The Deep Blue Sea also confronts her demons with a first botched suicide attempt. The new world that both must enter at the start of the play is a merciless one, something has been lost that neither can recover although their striving to do so drives the drama and lends an inevitability to the sense of tragedy. Freddie forgetting her birthday seems trivial but it becomes the trigger for Hester to reconsider her choices before the play begins, symbolising the unsuitability of her relationship and forcing her to recognise that their time together is coming to an end, believing she cannot live without him.

Hamlet’s relationship with his father and Hester’s with Freddie are the most important of their lives and losing them quite suddenly gives both a sense of purposelessness. Hester’s suicide note so callously read aloud by Freddie to his friends (and thereby the audience) is the equivalent of her soliloquy in which she expands on her feelings for him and reasons for taking her own life. That Freddie mocks it says much about his inability to process emotion – something he all but acknowledges – yet it does not detract from an act that in the context of both plays was seen as unchristian and illegal. That Hamlet and Hester consider such drastic action to end their suffering regardless of the consequences for their reputation and presumably for their souls reveals a great deal about the importance of these key relationships in sustaining their sense of self and giving their life purpose.

In other ways, Hamlet and The Deep Blue Sea create a sense of powerlessness in their protagonist through the subtle rendering of the wider setting in which the action takes place. Hamlet is an unthroned prince, an heir apparent whose hereditary right has seemingly been usurped by the one man he finds it hard to challenge. Why and how this happened remains one of the play’s great mysteries but it leaves Hamlet adrift with neither armies, allies or even the moral courage to fight his enemy. These circumstances and the apparent acceptance of the Danish people for King Claudius leave Hamlet powerless to take control of his own life, a spare prince with no meaningful role.

Likewise, Hester’s experience in the play’s 1952 setting is entirely defined by her gender, a woman separated from her respectable husband, living in sin with her younger lover in rented rooms and with little legal or social recourse to protect her interests. As the daughter of a clergyman Hester (unlike the other women in the play) has no experience of work, hoping to make a precarious living as a painter when Freddie leaves, and her class betrayal has left her without friends to rely on in her time of need.

Hester’s status as a soon-to-be-divorced middle-aged woman with a modest income makes her potential future in these circumstances rather bleak but she is all but powerless to change it. Ultimately, all Hamlet and Hester have to claim as their own is life itself; both must examine whether life for its own sake is worth having and how the pain of it can be borne.

Besides the suicidal impulses of the central characters these very different plays also share secondary themes, considering the nature and effects of betrayal, a sense of observation or of being spied upon, and a destructive experience of rejection. Like Hamlet, Hester is frequently betrayed by the characters around her, and before she appears, Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) has already broken her confidence, revealing her real name and situation to the Welches in an attempt to help in the panicked aftermath of her suicide attempt, but delivered with the gossipy fervour of a secret surreptitiously shared.

Soon, Mrs Welch (Yolander Kettle) is keen to read her suicide note, stopped only by her better-behaved husband (Hubert Burton), while Sir William Collyer (Peter Sullivan) returns on the pretext of concern but really with the intention of reclaiming the wife he needs for society parties and status – a betrayal of Hester’s own emotional position. Freddie, of course, betrays her most notably, acknowledging early-on his inability to love with the expressive intensity that Hester experiences. This mocks the ten month relationship for which she has sacrificed everything from marriage and comfort to dignity and ease of heart. That Hester is watched, managed and listened to as completely as Hamlet is pointed, as external circumstances affect and shape the growing desperation of their inner lives.

But death exists inescapably for other characters in The Deep Blue Sea as well, and Freddie in particularly is deeply affected even haunted by his experience as a pilot in the Second World War. His life “stopped in 1940” Hester explains and this National Theatre at Home screening of the play premiered on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940. Freddie is far more than a callous brute and, clearly traumatised by his experience, loses his nerve as a test pilot bringing the couple back from Canada to deal with the restrictions of 1950s Britain.

To have faced death so openly each day and in a way none of the other characters can claim to, Freddie’s inability to feel anything as intensely in the subsequent years is understandable and pitiable. His anger at Hester’s seemingly casual approach to death as an escape from her overwhelming emotions rather than a state to be feared and respected in the light of the sacrifices of others is essential to comprehending his reactions to her throughout the play. And perhaps more than Hester herself Freddie is a character who lives with and understands death completely, knowing – as good Mr Miller (Nick Fletcher) advises – that the only thing to do is get up the next day and go on living.

And death lingers elsewhere in this play as we presume that Mr Elton, the landlady’s husband, lays slowly dying in another room unable to recover from some unexplained illness. Mr Miller, too, we learn has lost his medical licence to practice for which several potential reasons arise. It may have been the result of some misdemeanor for which he has served time in prison, if not sexual misconduct then presumably his crime resulted in the death of a patient or he could be a refugee from Europe, displaced by the Holocaust, an experience of death far more significant that a single suicide attempt in a drab London flat. Even Sir William presides over life and death as a judge who, in 1952, would still have had the power to sentence a guilty man to capital punishment. The life he offers Hester also brings with it a metaphorical death, suffocating her with social duties, keeping up appearances and dull rounds of obligation, but the Judge represents a physical experience of death as readily as the other characters around Hester, each in their way creating a context in which mortality decisions are a regular feature of their lives.

Helen McCrory and Tom Burke rightly received wide acclaim for their interpretations of Hester and Freddie, but the write-ups of Carrie Cracknell’s intensely atmospheric production focused almost exclusively on the love story and the deeply-felt expression of emotion. But Rattigan’s play is also about determining whether life is worth having, and how to make it bearable day-to-day. Cracknell and designer Tom Scutt have clearly understood this too and use the semi-transparent walls to show all the different experiences of the building’s inhabitants, a range of people and modes of living on show, each one of them wondering every day if it is worth going on.

McCrory’s Hester is almost somnabulistic, gliding through the play as though she no longer exists, making the audience ever aware that she will try again and again – the finality of her confrontation with Freddie merely expedites something she has already chosen, the pain of her existence exploding before us. The ebullience of Burke’s Freddie conceals acres of experience, his placidity and detachment aggrevating to Hester because he can never be provoked to feel for her as much as he once did for the comrades he lost.

“We’re death to each other you and I” he tells her and Rattigan’s glorious play makes you believe it. Death haunts every corner of The Deep Blue Sea not just as the tragic representation of the writer’s own experience of loss but in the evocation of mid-century lives so meaningfully understood, created and rendered. This group of lost souls, existing between two different states, not dead but not fully alive are ordinary and tragic, and in them Hester finds unexpected salvation as Rattigan chooses to dash our expectations. Like Shakespeare’s greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea is grief channelled into art, aligning Hamlet and Hester as two souls enveloped by death and choosing whether to live.

The Deep Blue Sea is streaming via National Theatre at Home until 16 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Birdsong Online – The Original Theatre Company

Birdsong Online - Origins Theatre

Birdsong is one the great novels of the late twentieth-century, a sweeping story of love, humanity and annihilation set against the backdrop of the First World War and in which a young man navigates the most tumultuous period of peace and conflict. Adapting Sebastian Faulks’s literary masterpiece has never been easy and after many stunted attempts since its publication in 1993 it was brought to the screen by the BBC in 2012 and then shortly afterwards (and independently) to the theatre. Now, Rachel Wagstaff has adapted her own 2013 theatre production for the new socially distanced experience of video calling platforms with a uniquely inventive online version of her play that pays the biggest debt to the lyricism of the original novel.

There have been many productions created during lockdown then streamed online across the last four months, resulting in clear development in the creative use of online tools to both capture and relay stories to audiences hungry for theatrical experiences. Some of the very best including Midnight Your Time and Staged have used video calling as the basis for their stories, expanding on the nature of connectivity and our attempts to overcome social distance by any means possible. Others have utilised the software to tell stories unrelated to the pandemic, transmitting live readings and performance of Shakespeare predominantly but also showcasing new writing including Jermyn Street Theatre’s rehearsed reading of The Skin Game.

Birdsong Online is in the latter camp, filming individual actors performing from separate locations but with an enterprising cinematic quality that uses changing backdrops, lighting, music and camera angles to successful recreate the impression of trenches, dugouts and field hospitals while the protagonist Stephen Wraysford also travels to the lush grandeur of pre- and mid-war Amiens. Staging Birdsong which covers eight of the most significant years of the century is a hugely ambitious undertaking in any circumstances, but to stage it in this way is little short of remarkable.

A Pivotal War Novel

When Sebastian Faulks published his outstanding novel more than 25-years ago it was quickly and rightly hailed as a masterpiece. Its depiction of the First World War was far more complex than the persistent popular image of 1914-1918 in which conscripted soldier-poets filled with disaffection were sent to slaughter by stuffy Generals. Historians had been writing about the contradictory impulses felt by men at war for many years – that to hate the experience of conflict could sit side-by-side with a compulsion to be part of it and a sense of duty to see it through whatever the cost were entirely commensurate reactions. When Birdsong was published it was still deeply unfashionable to suggest that the  archaic notions of honour, loyalty and duty drove men to keep fighting and the other great fiction of that age, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, focused on shell shock and combatant disenchantment.

Faulks’s clearly well researched book was quite a radical repositioning of the fictional presentation of the Great War and, while many veterans published honest accounts both during and after the conflict, for a non-combatant to have created such a vivid and psychologically complete understanding of the experience of a war concluded decades before his birth was impressive. Moreover, the lyricism of Faulks’s prose, the expressive beauty of his phraseology brought the vision of war to the reader in a way never seen before. With an almost immersive quality, Faulks plunges us into the trench systems, craters and tunnels of the British lines and No Man’s Land, using language to create the sights, sounds and smells of prolonged warfare in what became an almost sensory experience. His poetic turn of phrase allowed a flesh and blood reality to emerge in his characters, taking a conflict so often portrayed as a blanket tragedy and relocating the evolving stories of its characters as weariness and frustration played out against an ongoing fascination – for Stephen at least – with how far man’s destructive impulses would go.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Birdsong is how Faulks counterpoints the story of the First World War and its far reaching degradation of human endurance with the restitution of Stephen’s soul. And far from losing his humanity on the battlefield, the cold personality of this broken soldier is eventually restored and renewed by the conflict. While Faulks never shies away from or downplays the brutality and cost of war – giving a detailed account of the first day of the Somme, the destructive effect of technology on flesh and the futility of the sacrifices made for small if any territorial gain – the character of Stephen is slowly revived through the events of the novel, learning to reconcile the emotional devastation he feels resulting from a doomed love affair years before with the value of his comrades, creating a renewed sense of hope and possibility as the novel concludes.

Staging Birdsong Online

With that in mind, Wagstaff had no easy task in bringing this novel to life, and while the barebones story is easy enough to create, so much of Birdsong‘s success as a novel resides in Faulks’s writing style, little of which is easily replicated through dialogue alone and the stage adaptation received a mixed response from critics although audience enthusiasm has resulted in several UK tours. Online however, Wagstaff more successfully marries the story’s literary origins with the dramatic recreation of its core scenes, borrowing a little from all three media in which it has been adapted.

Wagstaff solves the issue of restricted scale on video calling platforms and the limited recording equipment available by using the authorial voice as a narrator, taking the audience between different locations and framing scenes with character state of mind explanations.  In lieu of stage directions, lighting, scenery and other theatrical devices to convey change and movement to an auditorium, far more of Faulks’s original text is preserved and read by the author to link passages and scenes together.

Some may find it intrusive but in many ways it is an elegant solution, one that lovers of the novel will particularly relish, creating tone, atmosphere and pacing while allowing the audience to bask in those beautifully constructed sentences. This is used particularly well during the pivotal Somme sequence, and rather than attempt to recreate the carnage, fear and disorientation of a full-scale attack, Faulks reads an abridged version of the scene from the pages of his book. It is an ideal choice, and with Birdsong Online first broadcast on the 104th anniversary of the most destructive day in British military history, it is a decision that showcases the evocative nature of Faulks’s prose, allowing the audience to imagine what the compromised conditions of lockdown filming could never hope to replicate. It is sad and tragic, far more powerful for not being seen and a great tribute to one of the book’s most thought-provoking and immersive passages.

This is supported by effectively dramatising the letters to loved ones which Faulks’s various characters write on the eve of battle. It is an especially poignant moment in the novel as men write with varying degrees of honesty about their fears, some choosing to express their worries while others reach for the platitudes and stock phrases of good cheer. It is Faulks’s very creditable equivalent of Shakespeare’s night before Agincourt in Henry V in which the men ponder the challenge to come. In Birdsong Online, the actors deliver parts of these letters to a camera that cuts between the cast members, merging and layering their narratives to create one of the most affecting sequence. Using so much of Faulk’s original text helps to emphasise the broader cost of war to men of all ages, rank and class, showing how this contemplative process of writing, for some, became their last ever recorded words.

In designing the visual impression of the war, directors Alastair Whately and Charlotte Peters utilise a variety of graphic backdrops created by David Woodhead to move the characters between locations. These are most effective during the sequences set in the trench systems of 1914-1918 where the visual design uses perspective to create a feeling of depth as snaking duckboards retreat into the distance or the interior of dugouts help to create a feeling of place. Crucially, they rarely detract from the story and in shades of brown that represent the churned earth and wooden architecture of this environment, the tonality blends well with the actors’ uniforms, enhancing the feeling of immersion in the story.

Whately and Peters’s choices are most effective in the tunneling sections, where Stephen and Tipper join Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw below ground. Plunging the frame into complete darkness, only the performers’ mud-stained faces are visible as they listen-out for enemy action through the walls, implying well the feeling of claustrophobia and vulnerability that the soldiers experience. This is even more important in the story’s powerful final section as Jack and Stephen complete their story arc beneath No Man’s Land. The tension generated in these sequences brings Faulks’s novel to life with both clarity and intensity, sometimes cutting between the characters in full-screen and sometimes placing their reactions side-by-side – these are some of the few moments in which the filming platform intrudes into the story  but in the darkness of the tunnels it looks almost as though the men are in close proximity to one another.

The chronology of the novel was previously altered for the stage, and while Faulks’s text opens with the doomed adulterous liaison between Stephen and his host’s wife Isabelle, Wagstaff retains her version, sublimating this section within the war narrative as a series of memories returning to the protagonist. This has mixed results; although largely well-acted, the backdrops to these sequences are a little cartoony, they feel hollow in comparison to the wartime experience as this unlikely relationship progresses too rapidly to be credible and becomes a little stilted. Faulks spends over a 100-pages on the affair in which he establishes the conditions of his central character’s future journey. Reconstructing the narrative gives Birdsong Online a more dramatic opening, plunging the audience instantly into the combative experience, but reducing the impact of the relationship to a series of misty-eyed memories lessens its intensity, noting Stephen’s psychological driver but never letting the audience truly feel its value.

His emotional response to war and its salvational effect in reviving his connection to the world is also a little mixed-up; in the book this comes only partially from confronting and resolving his lingering feeling for the woman who had earlier abandoned him. The novelised Stephen, far from mooning over his lost love, had grown ‘cold’ in the years leading up to 1914 and is no longer passionately in love with Isabelle as presented here. Instead the wartime Stephen is almost statuesque, and having shut himself off from the external this gives him an emptiness that allows him to observe the inevitable intersection of his conflict and romantic experiences almost from outside himself.

Tom Kay is a pretty good Stephen, charting the conflicted soul of a man not quite in the world reflecting on the youthful naivety of his earlier self. There is a Merchant Ivory quality to Kay that suits this period and he makes the audience understand the complexity of Stephen’s characters and care for the outcome. However, Tim Treloar is really the star of Birdsong Online with a touching performance as the decent but afflicted Jack Firebrace, a good ordinary working man whose simple need to return to his wife and son are powerfully afflicted by the vagaries of fate. The sense Treloar gives of Jack’s decency and thankfulness even as he receives the worst news reveals acres of feeling that are often heartbreaking to watch.

There are some small but colourful performances from Stephen Boxer as the duped Azaire, managing to suggest a great deal with only a couple of scenes, Max Bowden as the terrified Tipper too young to know what he had gotten himself into, as well as Samuel Martin and Liam McCormick as Jack’s team Evans and Shaw who develop a great sense of dependable and vital comradeship. The reworking of the love story drains the character of Isabelle leaving the slightly too modern looking Madeline Knight with little to do but weep whereas Faulks’s original had more layers of duty, guilt, obligation and even entitlement to the passion she developed for her young guest.

With profits donated to the Royal British Legion, Birdsong Online is a really engaging experience, one that brings this beloved novel to life with invention and sensitivity. More than the stage show or the TV adaptation, this adaptation puts Faulks’s text at its heart not only lifting the story and dialogue but accessing the horrifying beauty of his prose to help the audience to visualise the wider war happening beyond the frame. In that sense Birdsong Online is extremely successful, navigating  between the story, the technology used to deliver it and the imagination of the audience needed to believe it. Written more than a quarter of a century ago, Birdsong remains one the great modern novels and here somewhere between theatre and film its legacy, and that of the Great War, lives ever on.

Birdsong Online was created by The Original Theatre Company and was available from 1-4 July.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

%d bloggers like this: