Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Winter’s Tale – RSC / BBC4

The Winters Tale - RSC (by Topher McGrillis)

Of the many productions cancelled as a result of the pandemic, several have found a new life in another form largely through dedicated online streaming platforms that had a modest take-up before theatre closures but have allowed creatives, directors and producers to share their work with a wider audience in the hope of staging it in the future. But two of the most significant contributors to the saving of ‘lost’ plays are not dedicated arts spaces – Zoom a video calling platform originally designed for quite a different purpose and the BBC. Reithian values and mission aside, television and theatre have been largely estranged for a long time, but during each lockdown a plethora of archived content supplied by arts organisations was given wider prominence before newly commissioned pieces were funded, filmed and shared via the BBC iPlayer, radio channels and (the now under threat) BBC4.

An important outlet then for theatre, opera and dance in the last year, the BBC Lights Up Festival and Culture in Quarantine initiatives have been a treasure trove of lost works – from Ian Rickson’s rich and moving Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter to radio productions of Rockets and Blue Lights, The Meaning of Zong and Shoe Lady, the BBC has thrown a much needed lifeline to staged and developing works. One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) who shared a host of pre-recorded plays for free last summer and now join forces with BBC4 for the world premiere of A Winter’s Tale, a production intended for the 2020 stage and all but lost to theatre history.

Now available on the iPlayer following its evening screening, this version was filmed on the Stratford stage almost as it would have been presented to an audience and has been newly repurposed for television, following in the footsteps of the National Theatre’s equally ‘lost’ Romeo and Juliet that became a Sky Arts film earlier this month, finding itself anew in the cinematic format. The Winter’s Tale is a play that easily bears the change of medium, often finding resonance in other forms, not least a stunning ballet production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2014 which the Royal Opera House streamed last year under its Our House to Your House season of works. Eschewing Shakespeare’s text entirely, it nonetheless boasted a poignant and psychologically complex performance from Principal Edward Watson, arguably one of the finest Leontes in any form.

And The Winter’s Tale is a play that can be transposed to many eras, it’s eternal themes of love, loss, jealousy and redemption tinged with a touch of magic feel well situated in the RSC’s production which enhances its atmosphere of uncertainty by locating the action in the suspicious Cold War era where the nature of alliance and allegiance was sorely tested. Framed against the years 1953 to 1969 (the Coronation of Elizabeth II to the Moon Landing) this is a rich period where the long shadow of the Second World War, of rationing, economic depression and rebuilding collided with a social optimism for change and progress, tearing down some of the rigid social structures and expectations and replacing them with greater choice – or so it seemed on the surface at least.

But underneath this narrative, the consequences of political rancor and betrayal earlier in the century came to fruition which, as A Splinter of Ice so well explores, resulted in the uncovering of a major Russian spy ring with the escape of Burgess and Maclean that led to the hunt for the Third Man whose own defection falls within the period in which the RSC have set their production. That Director Erica Whyman’s story begins against this backdrop of confusion, the world being upended and recent history being rewritten adds much to the climate of distrust in King Leontes’s court although more of this could be more strongly conveyed. Expanding the scope of the play from personal jealousy to a much broader and state-influenced concern about trust and deception in a period where nations like the UK began to question its position and influence on the world stage as the Empire faded away is a valuable starting point. And to conclude at a point where jetting into space felt like a piece of magic, in theory, fits well with the play’s charming conclusion where Queen Hermione fulfills the Pygmalion myth.

The two halves of this story taking place 16 years apart represent those differences as designer Tom Piper creates the elegant but austere court of Sicilia and the concentration-camp-like trial where Queen Hermione’s purity is debated. Combined with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s creeping music, the design is full of the dark shadow of suspicion that hangs over the first 90-minutes of Shakespeare’s text, although there were perhaps even greater opportunities to enhance the watchfulness and duplicity that Leontes expresses with more overt attempts to overhear the conversations between his wife and friend or to have them followed.

But building on the theme, Madeline Gerling’s costume design evolves from 50s cocktail party to authoritarian state quite swiftly as the increasingly enraged Leontes appears in unadorned military garb to demand the death of his Queen despite the guidance issued by the Oracle. Part Two is another world entirely as the audience depart for Polixenes’s Bohemia, a pastoral 60s vision of loose-fit hippie floral dresses and communal easy living which contrasts the formality of its neighbouring land.

Whyman manages the production with the same distinction, running the Sicilian section as a single theatrical piece filmed as-live with scene changes happening within the show as they would in the theatre, rather than use cuts as a movie would. The same occurs in the second half of the play, allowing the Bohemian sequence in Act 4 to transform back into Leontes’s kingdom in Act 5 using stage technology rather than film which gives the actors long periods of performance to build their roles as theatre rather than movie performances which, on the whole, is beneficial to the flow.

Variation is created with a news reel section that foregrounds Hermione’s wonderful declaration of innocence, and with some home movie inserts into the pastoral festival that use a 60s filming style to create era authenticity. But again, the opportunity to directly link to the changing political context of the 1960s and even reference the moon landing described in the production’s publicity never fully transpire and the show starts to drift away from what should be a strong and remarkably relevant period setting for the unfolding drama.

As a hybrid production, none of this is anything like as daring as the National’s Romeo and Juliet nor does it use the playing space as liberally or imaginatively. Yet as a more traditional approach to filming a stage production – of which reflecting its stage origins remains its primary purpose – Whyman’s choices are faithful to the themes and shape of Shakespeare’s play – sometimes that is to its detriment and the problematic fourth Act filled with tangential (and slightly tiresome) comedy performances drags on and on, weighing heavy on the running time.

At two hours and forty-five minutes the show fails to find consistency across the entire piece and while the drama of Leontes’s marriage races by in an hour and a half, the remainder struggles to retain the same tension and investment. A tighter and, in places, a less reverential approach would have added greater pace and jeopardy to proceedings, acknowledging that the demands of story-telling on film require a greater brevity and purpose than a straightforward translation from the stage often allows.

Yet in a play that, to modern eyes at least, rests on the injustices heaped on its women who are suspected, disbelieved, maltreated and exiled without evidence, the central female performances are especially strong. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is superb as Hermione, stately and regal throughout, Jacobs conveys real authority and sincerity in every speech, passionately advocating for her life during her trial in one of this production’s finest moments. Jacobs brings a poise and grace to the role, giving the dialogue such a natural expression that the audience can feel nothing but sympathy for her plight even refusing to believe Leontes deserves any kind of forgiveness or redemption from her at all.

Amanda Hadingue’s Paulina is equally impressive, authoritative and direct with her monarch, unafraid to plead her friend’s cause and show the King his errors in judgement. Persistence and enduring devotion are Paulina’s greatest qualities, and Hadingue portrays a woman who quietly and containedly endures her own grief while proving a commanding presence on stage, allowing her disapproval and rage to show only briefly while working to restore harmony.

This strength in the female characters is given additional might in Whyman’s interpretation of one of the most famous stage directions of all time – ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ – and one of the delights of The Winter’s Tale is seeing how each new staging approaches Shakespeare’s most demanding instruction. Here Whyman and Anna Morrissey channel female fury in the play to create a stomping and clawing women-only movement piece that becomes the bear as Colm Gormley’s Antigonus reacts separately to being pawed and dragged. It’s a smart and intriguing idea that offers something new within the original spirit of the play’s themes.

It’s a shame then that Joseph Kloska’s Leontes comes up wanting, never quite getting to grips with the depth of feeling in either section of the play. At the start, his jealousy is too hysterical, often even shrill, creating an energy level from the start that the character cannot sustain. There needs to be a calm coldness in Leontes too, a King who with barely a flicker orders the poisoning of his friend Polixenes and the murder of his baby daughter before condemning his wife to the same fate, but Kloska plays Leontes as an easily-swayed fool which undermines his supposed gravitas. 16-years later there is just not enough agony in Kloska’s final scenes, nothing of the humbled man who has torn his soul apart in grief and regret or the poignancy of an undeserved second chance. It’s difficult, of course, without being able to build this role over a long run but it rarely gets beneath the surface of a tortured but fascinating character.

Andrew French as Polixenes has greater command despite a much smaller role and Ben Caplan’s conflicted Camillo adds depth with subtle debates about defection between two very different courts and the longing for home that speak to some of the contextual issues that frame the period setting. There is a lot to enjoy in this RSC meets BBC4 production that despite some lags in the play (which are largely Shakespeare’s fault), offers a faithful reading with some contemporary resonance – although this hybrid production leans more heavily towards its origins as a theatre piece that somewhat limits its repurposing as a film. No longer ‘lost’ it joins the many other arts performances that have found a new life on film as the progress of digital theatre continues apace.

The Winter’s Tale received its world premiere on BBC4 on 25 April and is now freely available via the iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

A Splinter of Ice – Original Theatre Company

A Splinter of Ice - Original Theatre Company

There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer but an icicle in the heart of a spy; Graham Greene’s own words form the basis of Ben Brown’s new drama imagining a meeting between the writer and the twentieth century’s most famous real-life spy Kim Philby, former friends reunited in Moscow in the late 1980s as both Philby’s life and the political regime he betrayed everything for – the Soviet Union – were coming to an end. One of the things you hear most about the Philby story is that his friends and colleagues in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) never forgave him, the level of deception and deep betrayal leaves scars to this day, but Brown’s intriguing drama wonders if the opportunity for forgiveness was ever in play.

No matter how many books are written, dramas produced or investigations undertaken, when assessing the work of deeply embedded intelligence officers like the Cambridge Five there are two questions that continue to intrigue us; first why did they turn against the country of their birth to align their loyalties with a foreign nation they had never visited, and, second, was it really worth it – when forced to defect as international mole hunts across the UK and US intelligence services uncovered their deception, was the life they were forced to adopt in Russia everything they had dreamed it would be or just the terrible and lonely price for staying alive?

Brown’s play explores these questions using an imagined meeting between novelist and former SIS operative Graham Greene and Kim Philby, the (to UK eyes) disgraced spy once touted as the natural successor to C, the Head of SIS, real life figures thrust into Brown’s semi-fictionalised duologue where the audience eavesdrops on two former friends reunited more than 20 years after Philby’s defection. The cat and mouse structure is a cliche of spy drama but our position as KGB listeners proves fruitful as Brown’s tense dialogue evolves beyond the simplicity of hunter and prey to something far more complex as the question of loyalty to country and ideology is deepened by the friendship between the men which both seem determined to preserve against the odds.

Brown is fascinating by Philby it is clear and across the two Act structure of Splinter of Ice his biography and its outcome is prioritised, leaving the more famous writer in the shadows – a potentially deliberate ploy that maintains a deeply valuable and unresolved tension in the dialogue as Greene’s ultimate motives remain pleasingly uncertain. But it means that Philby, most often, has the floor, recounting his backstory with sometimes laboured exposition in the guise of explaining himself to his friend.

Much of Philby’s story – presented to his former pal as surprising information – is now widely known from similar cultural re-tellings of his story including the BBC mini-series Cambridge Spies from 2003 and Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad focusing on Guy Burgess (1983). Details of his first marriage to Communist Litzi Friedmann, his time as a journalist in Spain and his recruitment on a bench in Regent’s Park are easily accessible. But Philby’s story is so audacious it bears retelling so as the conversation moves on to his time in 1950s Washington during the defection of Donald McLean and Guy Burgess which cast suspicion on Philby, as well as his own eventual discovery in 1963 after which he absconded from Beirut, this data frames a much wider exploration of the bonds of Establishment and the consistency of Philby’s individual conviction – a claim to steadfastness he makes in the play as he organises the activities and consequences of his life story around a commitment made at the age of 22.

Brown is aware of the weight of these details however and, despite a few sections that start to sag, creates momentum in the drama by allowing the conversation to move between different topics as past and present mix with discussions of equally well known colleagues who betrayed the state – George Blake in particular who was the subject of Simon Grays’s Cellmates which also looks at the regretful later years in Russia when two friends reunite. But at its core, A Splinter of Ice is an exploration of friendship and its survival, how much either man can truly rely on the other and if – as Greene fleetingly suggests – a line must be drawn.

Through these topics, Brown looks to explore the nature of storytelling itself, not only how individuals reorder and reinterpret their own memories to consciously or unconsciously justify their present course, but how fiction writers like Greene and even le Carre (who receives a brief and slightly embittered name-check from Philby) use their work as an outlet to process their own experience of the Service. Both men in this play are haunted by their shared past and as neither seeks obviously to entrap or achieve victory over the other, there is a mutual process of consolation and consolidation that happens through their evening together.

Brown uses reference to Greene’s book and film of The Third Man as a secondary thematic layer to give shape to some of the discussions taking place between the author and old friend Philby who recognises and actively points to aspects of the story and its characters that appear to reflect his life, presumably appropriated by Greene to flesh-out his fictional tale of friendly betrayal amongst spies that is replicated by Brown’s play – an example of art reflecting art reflecting life. As the protagonists debate just who Holly Martins and Harry Lime represent, Philby shrewdly questions whether Greene’s tactics are the same as his creations, attempting to ensnare his former colleague under the guise of a lapsed acquaintance and lure him towards a form of retribution. In fact the first thing you will notice is Max Pappenheim’s homage to the film’s unmistakable and distinctive score composed by Anton Karas.

But A Splinter of Ice is not all subterfuge and double jeopardy, in fact there is a more tender reading of the play in which the two men see each other as much missed companions in which their suspicion is overtaken by their very great care for one another that emerges spontaneously through their conversation. That Brown, and Director Alastair Whatley with Alan Strachan, allow these two interpretations to weave together is one of the most exciting aspects of this production, moving away from a basic biography by mirroring its spy subjects and never allowing the audience to be quite sure which of its many faces is the real one.

Stephen Boxer adds many facets to his portrayal of Philby, a man whose reputation certainly proceeds him and, outwardly at least, maintains a certainty about his choices to the end. Whether anyone is actively monitoring his communications is left unresolved and Philby certainly says all the right things, even in the play’s darker moments when Greene asks him to account for the deaths he caused. But Boxer’s performance smartly traverses a thin line between truth and fiction so both his friend and the audience cannot be sure whether he means what he says, is quietly asking for help or has managed to deceive himself as a survival technique.

But you do get to see this new side to Philby, a shadow of sadness if not quite regret on his soul that misses the fundamental freedoms of British life as he checks the cricket score in his days old newspaper and unceremoniously drinks and drinks throughout the play – alcoholism a notable feature of ex-spies in Russia. Boxer shows Philby as a caring friend, a committed Englishman and Communist, a cold-hearted killer prepared to manipulate and twist a conversation to suit whatever story he is telling, a charismatic companion, an affectionate friend and a lonely man trying to impose some meaning on the fragments of his life more than 20-years after the once exciting dash of his work came to end.

By contrast, Oliver Ford Davies as Greene is far harder to read, his withdrawn and watchful performance designed to draw Philby out either in affectionate memory of their shared past or for some more desperate purpose. We learn very little about Greene beyond the title of several novels worked into the dialogue and that he once defended Philby in print, but what happens below the imperturbable service is far harder to determine. Where his friend seems positively garrulous, Greene gives perfunctory answers to questions and soon turns the conversation back to Philby – a trick his companion fails to notice as this silent confidant gains his trust.

Tellingly, Greene notes several times that no one ever really leaves the firm and hints are dropped of recent communication pertaining to his visit to Moscow and there is such steel in Ford Davies’s gaze at times that despite his reduced role in the conversation, you feel he is entirely in control of it, like that other famous fictional spy George Smiley coaxing a confession by relying on his partner’s need to talk. The only time Ford Davies suggests even a modicum of fear happens in the closing scene where an unexpected element changes the circumstances and this intriguing creation makes a hasty exit. Was he trying to trick Philby or was it merely the awkwardness of long-parted friends, we are left to wonder.

Filmed on stage at Cheltenham Everyman, this Original Theatre Company production was conceived as a stream but has since announced a brief UK tour scheduled for June and July. Staged in Philby’s Moscow flat, the ambiguous tone of this potentially decisive meeting is set immediately by Michael Pavelka’s utilitarian design which marks the simplicity of the apartment with basic furniture in shades of brown and beige with only small domestic comforts marking this out as a home rather than a cell.

The occasional intrusions of Philby’s final wife Rufa (Sara Crowe) slightly unbalance the tone and seem to be an excuse to bring on a female character for equity without adding much to the play except to note that deception of one kind or another remains part of Philby’s approach even now. But as this production heads for the stage almost exactly as presented here, it is the comparison between the two men that will linger; spies and writers both with faith in an unseen protector, which one of them is really fictionalising the past and the honesty to regret are at the heart of this play. Fellow writer E.M. Forster suggested he would rather betray his country than a friend but in this engaging two-hander those loyalties are sorely tested and whether Philby should ever have invited Greene to come in from the cold (a great line from Brown) he is left to ponder as the splinter of ice refuses to melt.

A Splinter of Ice is available to stream from Original Theatre Company until 31 July and tickets start at £20. A touring version of the show will run in June and July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Disenchanted! – Stream Theatre

Disenchanted - Stream Theatre

… and they all lived happily ever after. The princess has found her prince; she’s been rescued from her drab life as a live-in slave for seven little men; freed from sweeping floors for her wicked stepmother with only dressmaking mice for company and retrieved her voice from a scary seawitch, been magically transformed into a real human woman and got MARRIED. This is the end of the story, because for a woman life reaches its pinnacle when a man with a castle proposes and the years of suffering are finally over, you are now a princess. Except, that’s not quite how the story goes and marriage is just the beginning, what happens when Princess Jasmine has to pick-up Aladdin’s harem pants from the floor one too many times, Belle realises the Beast was less moody than her new husband and Rapunzel’s spouse leaves her home alone with nothing to do but grow her hair… happy ever after – as if!

Dennis T. Giacino’s delightful off-Broadway comedy musical is here to set the story straight as the Princesses fight back with their own show that reveals what it is like to be Disneyfied, sculpted into impossible body shapes drawn by men and have their image appropriated and plastered on merchandise from t-shirts to toilet paper. Disenchanted! was first performed in 2009 to much deserved acclaim and a new UK production directed by Tom Jackson Greaves has been created for Stream Theatre and made available for only three days (but expect an encore before too long).

Describing itself as a royal vaudeville, the premise is a simple one, a collective of princesses under the direction of best friends Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are brought together to finally correct the stories that have been told about them. Each one gets their own song staged as a series of Music Hall turns in which the women address the audience directly but there are several ensemble numbers that cut across the show to bring together wider themes about the misappropriation of female narratives, representation and ingrained concepts of sexism.

The tone however is highly satirical, landing perfectly on the line between comedy and politics that makes Disenchanted! a fun but meaningful experience. There is a joyful cheekiness in Giacino’s musical that restores personality and sometimes historical accuracy to these characters, encouraging the audience to revisit the picture-perfect impressions we are spoon-fed from childhood and instead see these princesses as fully-rounded women who can be angry, unpleasant, crass and drunk while still being funny, sassy and full of agency.

Jackson Greaves’s production was rather miraculously filmed in a single day after a brief period of Zoom rehearsal and actively acknowledges its status as a streamed performance. The production design warps the traditional princess hues using simple acid coloured backdrops to heighten the fantasy world to which these women usually belong. To vary the presentation, Jackson Greaves employs several techniques to showcase the backing performances including small roundels that appear in-picture, cast members arriving in shot at a suitable point in the music as well as some of the split screen and image repetition edits that have become a familiar feature as digital productions have advanced beyond socially-distant boxes.

Running at around 85-minutes, this production of Disenchanted! has enough visual variety to keep the audience interested and while this is not always highly polished or perhaps as complex as some of the online material produced recently, this reflects the off-Broadway origins of the show and given the very limited time to create this Stream Theatre production, the approach does more than enough to underscore the charm of Giacino’s musical and imagine how it might be staged in cabaret or revue style in one of the smaller London venues like the Arts Theatre or the Crazy Coqs.

The physical limitations aside, there is a recognition in Jackson Greaves’s production that Giacino’s musical is first and foremost a character piece in which the stories and personalities of the princesses is the focus and it is this rather than flashy set design or technical wizardry that sustains the show’s 14 numbers. That each princess is distinct and distinctly bitter about the life she has been given makes the anticipation of each new story part of the joy of Disenchanted! and some of its best moments come from seeing how Giacino has reorientated and reimagined the wider lives of these women that uses their original story while also operating on a meta level to understand how those narratives have been shaped by external and largely commercial factors.

One of the earliest songs does the latter as Belle from Beauty and the Beast takes a wonderful pot shot at Disney with Insane!, finding herself trapped in the palace with the chattering candlestick, teapot and mantlepiece clock that were introduced into her tale in 1991. Sung brilliantly by Aisha Jawando, Belle is on her last nerve, unable to stomach the constant conversation of inanimate objects and driven mad by the concept. That she finds married life equally burdensome is passingly referenced in her husband’s lack of house-training while her inexplicable American accent mystifies the formerly-French peasant girl. Jawando delivers much of the song through gritted teeth as she rails hilariously against her fate.

The Little Mermaid is also starting to regret her choice, turning to drink to help her cope with the real legs she substituted sea legs for. Missing the freedom to dive back in, Millie O’Connell gives a big performance as the disillusioned princess with a touch of the Southern Belle blues who has come to the realisation that Two Legs are too many, Giacino focusing her woes largely within her own marital choices rather than how she has been presented.

Some of the most affecting numbers are more overtly political and ask some big questions about the erasing of women’s stories and how history has been rewritten to suppress the agency and independence of women. Natalie Chua’s Hau Mulan notes her lack of partner, the only princess present Without the Guy and wonders about her sexuality, while Grace Mouat almost steals the show as Pocahontas whose impassioned Honestly was the first song former teacher Giacino wrote when he saw the animated version of her life. It’s a sad and beautiful song in which Pocahontas outlines these inaccuracies which gloss over the rape, brutality and kidnap she really endured by sexualising her story – the only time this production pauses to note the violence against Indigenous American women – and Mouat absolutely grabs her moment to shine.

But other fictional characters want to set the record straight as well including Princess Badroulbadour known as Jasmine thanks to yet another Disney simplification who notes that Aladdin actually comes from a different part of East Asia. Sung by Courtney Bowman, Secondary Princess is a fierce number about a woman reclaiming her place. Equally determined is Shanay Holmes as The Princess Who Kissed the Frog whose upbeat soul number Finally is full of impressive trills and ranges as she celebrates receiving the same level of recognition as the Beautys and the Belles in her own fully-told story with a black female lead.

Holding the show together as comperes are Jodie Steele’s Snow White, Sophie Isaacs’s Cinderella and Allie Daniel as a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty which becomes a running gag. Steele is having a great digital year having recently appearing as a wonderfully ethereal Daisy in Gatsby: A Musical at Cadogan Hall, and here plays a very snarky Snow White, the leader of this rebel band of put-upon princesses. Some of her best moments are the husband-baiting A Happy Tune? which showcases her incredible range. Cinderella leads the body-shaming number All I Want to Do is Eat which critiques the impossibly thin bodies the women are expected to maintain and showcases Isaacs’s comic timing while Daniel challenges standard definitions of beauty with the ensemble number I’m Perfect while, completing the cast, Rapunzel (Jenny O’Leary) lends an operatic range to Not V’one Red Cent that questions the commodification of their image.

The early part of the show keeps the performers separate, giving each princess her own individual platform apart from our three regal guides who appear together between the guest appearances to compere and provide a running commentary. But the show builds to larger and larger ensemble numbers until the full cast of nine appear for the finale. Musical Director George Dyer has updated the musical styles across these different songs, giving each a distinctive flavour but drawing less on classic musical theatre to introduce more contemporary beats and varied song styles including hints of hip hop, cabaret, opera, country, blues and soul that emphasises the unique experience of each women, while still feeling like a a coherent score that builds to a satisfying conclusion.

The leveling opportunities generated by digital theatre have created something of a moment for reclaiming and reimagining female-led narratives. On the surface, a musical about fairy tale princesses may seem entirely out of kilter with the pioneering work of productions like Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels or 15 Heroines that excavated the ingrained nature of patriarchy and women’s behaviour to each other as much as their interaction with men, but look a little deeper and Giacino’s musical is doing much the same thing – even noting that the Princesses themselves judge others using male-defined expected behaviours – its tools just happen to be comedy and music. But after 85-minutes it more than makes its point and had the post-show Q&A audience demanding a West End transfer which it well deserves. Though written long before, this new outlet for Disenchanted! will do for fairy tale princesses what Six did for the wives of Henry VIII, making them more than prizes to be won in the stories of men and instead creating a potential phenomenon by giving them back their individuality and their voice. Now that’s the kind happy ever after we can believe in.

Disenchanted! was available via Stream Theatre from 9-11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Romeo & Juliet – National Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - National Theatre (by Rob Youngson)

Almost exactly a year ago the National Theatre unknowingly instigated a significant change in the way that we create and consume theatre when it made its 2011 production of One Man Two Guvnors freely available online for a few days. That day home digital theatre as we now know it was born and 16-weeks of archive showings followed, joined first by venues all over the country sharing pre-recorded material and before long the development and live streaming of brand new content. 12 months later hundreds of shows have been produced, some through established venues, others created by small companies seizing the opportunity to share their performances using video calling platforms and streaming channels, some live, some pre-recorded and made available on demand. In some ways theatre will never be the same.

The National Theatre has lead this kind of innovation before when it created its National Theatre Live service to record and distribute productions to cinemas. And in the last year, this new online community of supporters was officially recognised with the launch of its on-demand streaming service – National Theatre at Home – the natural culmination of this international interest in watching past productions. The National also advanced the creation and sharing of new commissions when lockdown regulations preemptively ended its runs of Death of England: Delroy and the second pantomime in its history Dick Whittington, both of which were streamed for free.

Now the National looks again to the future with a hybrid production of Romeo & Juliet conceived and filmed during November’s lockdown and broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts with a PBS American premiere to follow later in the month. Based on a production originally announced for last summer that was derailed by the pandemic, this hybrid film directed by Simon Godwin (Antony and Cleopatra) retains the services of intended stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor and in using the large Lyttleton Theatre, follows in the footsteps of Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya for the BBC and even more pertinently Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert in acknowledging the theatre space that contains it.

What makes this beautiful 90-minute film especially interesting for theatre is its collaborative process of creation in which actors, director, creative team and crucially, the cinematographer worked together throughout the rehearsal and filming period to develop a vision for a piece that manages to be inherently theatrical and a successful movie experience. This combination of quite different technical skills and requirements is a potentially exciting byproduct of filmed theatre where different kinds of creative input and the development of transferable skills can shift perspectives on how a show can use different narrative and visual techniques to tell a story.

Adapted by Emily Burns for the screen, this production manages to successfully combine both strands of Romeo & Juliet, creating a love story that is believable despite its slight premise and a context of simmering violence in which the two families openly contend and it is rare to see both so well conceived in the same production. In fact, what sets the National’s new version apart is just how inextricably linked they are, moving beyond a surface reading of the text in which the lovers are separated by family enmity, to demonstrate throughout that the emotional extremes that project the ferocity of Romeo and Juliet’s love and the burning hate between Capulet and Montague are equivalent and unruled passions with only one deadly outcome.

This darkness imbues the 95-minute film from its earliest moments as a cast of players gather in a National Theatre rehearsal room to perform this story for themselves alone. As Lucian Msamati’s Friar begins the play’s famous prologue, scenes from the inevitable future flash across the screen, anticipating what is to come but also giving this production a driving predestination. It is a technique the film uses in several crucial moments as both Romeo and Juliet foresee momentary snatches of their future echoing back to them as physical actions in the present such as Juliet lamenting Romeo’s departure, laying across the bed with an arm outstretched just as she will a few hours ahead when taking her fateful sleeping draft.

In slimming this lengthy play to a curt running time, Burns has had to jettison vast amounts of text particularly from the secondary characters and instead hones in on the initiation and development of what is here an intense love story, though even the soliloquies are reduced largely to the essential narrative requirements and well-known lines. But it has been skillfully done and Burns never loses the psychological purpose of the characters or the complexity of their interactions with their families or the social, religious and political structures of the city.

That this version of Verona is a savage place is abundantly clear, and while the editing choices mean that Mercutio and Tybalt in particular are dispatched far too soon and with so little time to give further substance to their individual personalities, Burns’s approach shuts down all avenues of escape or hope for the lovers unable to turn to their cold families or flick-knife wielding friends for assistance. Even the comedy of the Nurse is mostly put aside in order to imprison the leads and drive them to destruction.

As a first time film director with extensive understanding of staging and eliciting the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, Godwin has achieved something remarkable in this movie by marrying his understanding of stage intimacy with the much smaller scale projection that a camera demands. Some of our most creative directors regularly and very successfully move between theatre and film, and the influence of both forms of art can be seen in the complexity of the work they produce. Comparing Sam Mendes work on The Ferryman or The Lehman Trilogy and 1917 it is possible to see how they influence each other, a feeling of orchestration where Mendes is able to control the grand narrative while still drawing-out the intricacy of the human stories within it. Danny Boyle has a similar vision in his stage and film work, and comparing Frankenstein with Steve Jobs there is an intuitive understanding of visual design and the impact of theatrical spaces that is enhanced by a considered technical understanding of lighting, perspective and narrative devices.

Godwin has developed a similar eye and uses the theatre space here in quite an unusual way to create the scale of theatre with the proximity of bodies engaged in acts of affection, love and destruction. The conceit in this Romeo & Juliet is that the rehearsal room and its plain-clothed actors becomes the colourful world of Verona although Godwin holds back in marking this change until the party scene at the Capulets where the lovers first encounter one another. And while the actors have transitioned fully into their characters only to return briefly in the film’s closing scene, the stage area still quite deliberate forms the boundaries of their existence as Shakespeare implies in several plays – the opening Chrous of Henry V being the most famous.

Filmed in the Lyttelton Theatre, you will be hard pressed to recognise much of it, the playing space demarcated by iron doors that are the limits of Verona from which the costumed Romeo is eventually exiled into an adjoining but empty ante-room where he has no means of escape. That crucial scenes take place amidst the scenery struts in a thin corridor and on metal gantries cleverly imply how tangential the business of the family rivalry becomes to the lovers whose own scenes are fully staged in realised rooms – they are each other’s reality and while Romeo in particular traverses these other spaces, it is in these other more tangible locations that sadly for his friends his priorities, mind and purpose belong.

When Godwin shows the lovers together it is with close-ups so tight the viewer is almost within their embraces, the fierceness of their passion – as with his Antony and Cleopatra – unbounded by reason or parental order. But in what can often be a relationship that is hard to invest in, the proximity of Godwin’s lens gives these scenes a different level of intensity, an all or nothing consuming purpose that makes the brief time they have known one another seem irrelevant. Their relationship is desperate, urgent and ungovernable but surrounded by danger that is reflected in Godwin’s shot choices that build on his own experience as a theatre director.

Visually, this version of Romeo & Juliet is incredibly stylish but design is used in ways that enhances the story – a Soutra Gilmour trademark – using particular colours and tonal palettes. Romeo is always dressed in a pale hues with white, beige and brown that reflect the softer, dreamier nature of his personality while Juliet is given shades of emerald green primarily that set her against the magical masked ball and later the simpler tones of the other characters. The production is beautifully lit in a way that only stage lighting can ever achieve, contrasting the warmth and moonlit romance of the brief courtship with the stark daylight that intrudes so cruelly as the machinations of their families comes between them.

Jessie Buckley is a remarkable Juliet, not the childlike and romantic interpretation we often see but an intense and almost crazed interpretation that has a genuine maturity of feeling. This Juliet understands what is at stake in every moment of the play and Romeo’s appearance taps into a deep-rooted need within her that she is unable to control. There are hints that the coldness of her mother and flustering nurse have left Juliet craving a true affinity but Buckley finds levels of anxiety, fear and almost fanaticism in Juliet’s connection to Romeo, her mind spinning with worry that he won’t arrange their marriage and later almost clawing at herself as she becomes hemmed in by the proposed match with Paris. Buckley’s Juliet seems always on the edge of despair, not exactly fragile but driven by a gnawing mania that takes her towards destruction like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is clearly a Lady Macbeth at some point in her future.

Josh O’Connor’s Romeo is less soulfully troubled but is equally thwarted by the interventions of fate. His own family connection is downplayed here so instead Romeo is struggling to balance the aggressive manly posturing expected of him and the softer feelings he has first for Rosaline and then for Juliet. O’Connor is particular good at these tender-hearted moments as the brooding Romeo of the opening scene evolves into the intoxicated lover, speaking the verse with real feeling that brings a credibility to their love-at-first-sight relationship. We see O’Connor’s Romeo act impulsively in his love for Juliet and in defence of his friend, both of which remain entirely consistent with his gentler nature, while the consequences of his rashness are convincingly depicted when his marriage to Juliet becomes his last refuge and hope.

Although the supporting cast have relatively less screen time this cast of National Theatre regulars amply flesh-out Veronese society. Msamati has incredible gravitas as the slightly sinister Friar Laurence who defies protocol by aiding the lovers while concocting all manner of alarming potions in his cell, but there is just enough affection for the couple in Msamati’s performance that makes his support convincing while amplifying the conspiratorial nature of the play that also puts him at risk if discovered. Tamsin Greig is brilliant as a calculating Lady Capulet whose softly spoken steel is enough to hold Tybalt (David Judge) back from murdering Romeo at the party and drips sufficient poison in her daughter’s ear to force her hand. We see too little of Deborah Findlay’s nurse, Adrian Lester’s furiously exasperated Prince and Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio but each adds much to the texture of the overall production despite their limited screentime.

With Director of Photography Tim Sidell and Composer Michael Bruce in the rehearsal room, this hybrid theatre and film production has been a fascinating experiment resulting in a smart, interesting and entirely collaborative piece of art. The influence of digital theatre productions will be long, felt not only in the continuation of streaming in some form and the creation of blended movies like this one, but the techniques and approaches developed together. That’s not to say that all theatre productions will overtly incorporate filmic devices but through such open collaboration as the National has demonstrated here, directors, actors, designers and cinematographers learn from one another. From these perspectives new methods of storytelling are being born and it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

Romeo & Juliet was created by the National Theatre and screened on Sky Arts on 4th April with a PBS screening the USA on 23 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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