Category Archives: Film

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

Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

Theatre has often been quite quick to react to new technologies, with set designers and directors at the forefront of integrating new approaches to staging and visualising a show. For better or worse, the association between theatre, television and film has only grown closer in the last ten years, not just with writers, directors and performers moving between the different genres with increasingly fluidity, but in the adoption of cinematic technique within productions. At a sector level, the influence of NT Live since 2009 has sometimes shaped how a show is put together. You need only look at the abstract way in which Frankenstein was shot to wonder what influence its film director Danny Boyle had on the final screening versions, and while the lure of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet brought the Barbican to a standstill, it was somewhat lost on its cavernous stage, but the production lived for its cinema-relay where the various technical decisions came together more successfully.

The use of video and film technique have also been integrated into the narrative experience  in a variety of ways, either as a means of identifying and recording action taking place “off-stage” or more directly as part of the overall visual design of a show. Ivo van Hove has made it a trademark and, love or hate it, much of his European work and now increasingly his UK output uses camera relay as an integral part of the show’s structure, projecting scrutinising close-ups of his actors even in the hidden crannies of the stage. This was notable in All About Eve where private moments in bathrooms and kitchens, from which other characters were purposefully excluded, were shared with the audience to increase the sense of dramatic irony and the notion of permanent performance which its group of creatives were experiencing. In Network at the National Theatre, van Hove had his actors begin a scene outside on the Southbank, live-streaming their arrival at the fictional TV studio where footage and the relationship between presenter and viewer was crucial. Even the more controversial Obsession – which is van Hove’s most European show to date – used its film noir ancestry to create an abstract, screen-filled experience.

But there are other kinds of show that have used film techniques for specific directorial and design effects as well as for driving narrative decisions. In 2016, Robert Icke’s superb adaptation of The Red Barn at the National Theatre adopted some of the split-screen approaches, used extensively in the 1960s, to build tension in a flowing murder mystery. Icke played with the proportions of the stage and seamlessly created window blocks to change the scale and visual impact of the action. Creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went a step further in Dear Evan Hansen  – the first musical to fully embrace and reflect the social media age – which opened in London last November, and created a stage filled with social media feeds that run continuously throughout the show as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube content became the context and the cause of the story.

And here we are at another moment of significant change where filmic content has been the major solution for an industry desperate to sustain engagement with its existing and new theatre audiences, as well as diversifying income streams during the lockdown. Previous productions recorded live and offered for free by the National Theatre at Home initiative have been so successful that more and more theatres have started to offer archived content with The Old Vic the latest to announce its own streaming channel from June. Prepared to “give back” at a time of crisis, content created for cinema screening and / or recorded using its techniques may yet be the saving grace of the theatre industry.

In a few cases, film and video-based platforms have also facilitated the recording and sharing of brand new material. Increasingly Zoom and other similar communication channels are been used to performed Shakespeare plays or musical theatre tribute concerts. Whether we openly recognise it, these are still cinematic experiences, ones watched on a screen, often with directorial consideration of camera placement, shot selection and cut decisions that pre-plan / rehearse how plays will be presented when they appear on audience laptops, smart phones and televisions.

All of this brings us to Midnight Your Time, a 30-minute play written in 2011 by Adam Brace and performed at the High Tide Festival by Diana Quick who stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival under the leadership of her director then and now, Michael Longhurst. Nine years ago, the staging took the Ivo van Hove route, projecting protagonist Judy’s image on a screen above the actor during a series of one-sided video calls. In 2020, Longhurst utilises the tools of film editing to transpose the entire production into Judy’s screen so the audience sees the show from unseen daughter Helen’s perspective as message after revealing message is recorded.

The video-based calling platforms have become all too familiar to many of us in recent weeks and whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype or seemingly endless others, these have been our primary means of communication with friends, family and colleagues since lockdown began. So it’s with a certain weary glee that Midnight Your Time reflects our current experience back at us, without altering the very specific era and political context of the show which begins in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2010.

Longhurst’s production is a series of short ‘scenes’, each one a separate video message the despairing Judy sends to her unresponsive daughter over a period of months. The premise and the building drama of the show depends on the protagonist’s interaction with the video call platform and its functionality which allows her to record messages for the recipient, as well as the option to delete and reconstruct the conversation she wishes to have.

This becomes particularly important as the truth about this mother-daughter relationship slowly emerges, and as Brace conversationally drip-feeds information – a hint of a past row here, the growing resentment of unreturned calls there – Longhurst uses a series of quick cuts to indicate conversations happening in a compressed time frame to reflect Judy’s optimistic, concessionary mood at the beginning of the play, or, more dramatically, in a late night scene in which she repeatedly lets her temper get the better of her and has to revise her message – the screen equivalent of throwing balled-up letters over her shoulder.

The staging of this extended monologue is both casual and remarkably formal, filmed in different rooms of Quick’s house – a decision that seems to be more than one of sheer variety – feeding directly into the two halves of Judy’s personality that so distinctly emerge as the narrative unfolds. In the welcoming warmth of the clean kitchen, the audience learns of Judy’s day-to-day activities, her legal training, involvement in a women’s peace organisation and the succession of middle-class parties and dinners that comprise her social activity. The bright lighting and position of the camera, revealing a particular kind of lifestyle.

The contrast in the more emotional scenes is notable and fascinating. Set either in the plush bedroom or living room, the curtains are always drawn, the light is limited and filming seems to take place at an entirely different time of day. While the audience is invited into these other rooms of the house, there is something incredible personal and almost voyeuristic about the result as Judy’s emotional, and sometimes physical, disorder exudes from these shots, private moments of revelation, of alcoholic dishevelment and guilt that seem to spring from the cosy backdrop.

And this awareness of the camera, it’s ability to pick-up on the subtext within the play and extrapolate much through the social environment is just as essential to Quick’s performance. It may seem particularly obvious to note that this is a play in which the camera is the key means of communication, but acting to camera requires a different calibration than stage acting which changes the scale of facial movements and physical gestures. Look at Sea Wall briefly made available on Youtube last week in which Andrew Scott’s performance has an extraordinary understanding of how to elicit maxim pathos and drama from a fixed-position camera.

Unlike on stage, only Judy’s head and shoulders are visible, very rarely do we see her entire body and the audience must rely on Quick to deliver a series of social cues that reveal everything about her state of mind. In moments of confidence she leans happily back in her chair, her make-up, hair and outfit purposefully designed to show Judy in her most level and public state – something all of us will recognise as we ‘dress’ for calls.  At her most vulnerable, she slumps defeated or leans close to the camera, pleading with her daughter to notice and respond to her entreaties, which only enhances the visual effect of her disordered hair and broken expression.

The relatively short scene structure that Brace has put in place, and from which Longhurst elicits such nuance, also uses the camera to create another interesting facet to this production, that of narrative unreliability. The audience initially is asked to empathise with Judy, a mother persistently trying to contact her feckless daughter, but as the story unfolds the changing locations and style call into question Judy’s motives by slowly revealing a controlling and potentially offensive authoritarianism that rankles with her silent daughter as clearly as it seems to with her charity colleagues and neighbours. Quick and Longhurst uses performance, shot design and direction to slowly shift the balance, helping the viewer to wonder whose side we should really be on.

After lockdown, there are valid concerns that new voices may be swallowed up in the desire to programme safely or that only the larger commercial auditoriums will still be there when theatre’s re-emerge. Yet this confining period is giving the industry plenty of food for thought and conversations abound about how the sector might look when venues reopen, this is a moment for re-evaluation from which all kinds of innovation could come. And, there is no doubting that the links between theatre and film, so vital to the sustenance of community in recent months, will only strengthen. How the semi-improvised simplicity of Zoom Shakespeare or the screen-based interactions that have become our main point of contact with the world will eventually impact the stage remains to be seen, but the recording and sharing of the live theatre experience is surely changed forever.

Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar Warehouse website until 20th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein – National Theatre at Home

Frankenstein - National Theatre

The National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein is one of the great pieces of twenty-first century drama, a rare combination of directorial vision, gripping storytelling, outstanding production values and two great actors at the top of their game alternating the lead roles night after night. A repeat favourite for NT Live screenings that consistently sells well, the decision to stream both versions as part of the National Theatre at Home series is a canny one. Intending to unite a community of theatre-lovers online, the programme began with the cheeky brilliance of One Man, Two Guvnors attracting over a million viewers on the first night, but for the three screenings since then viewing figures have dwindled. And while showing plays for free has been a welcome and public spirited act by one of our foremost theatres, there are big financial drivers – fewer viewers mean fewer donations at a crucial time.

Understandably then the announcement that Antony and Cleopatra would be preceded by a double bill of Frankensteins caused a bit of a flutter, combining one of their most recent productions staged just last year with unarguably one of their greatest. A very public boost for the NT, this rare two-premiere week aired Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature on Thursday night, followed by Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature on Friday, making both available for seven days. Other than a general preference for one actor over another, is there any benefit in seeing both versions and was role swapping any more than a gimmick?

The audience certainly didn’t think so, and Cumberbatch’s version had attracted close to 800,000 views in the first 24 hours, while Miller racked up a further 300,000 by Saturday night. Regular theatre goers will often see many versions of the same play each year, the sunnier months are packed with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while some years you can barely move for Hamlets and Macbeths at every playhouse. And excepting musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen where the young leads rotate, in drama unless an understudy is required to assume the role from an indisposed star, you are rarely afforded the chance to see the same show transformed by an alternative actor.

So, seeing both versions of Frankenstein in quick succession is a fascinating experience, the sets, blocking and text are all the same, yet the whole concept of the show is cast anew by the differing interpretations of the actors. The similarities and differences in their approaches are considerable and while it is tempting to try a ‘who played it best’ game, it is far more interesting to consider how interchanging the actors speaks purposefully to Danny Boyle’s vision for a show in which creature and creator are one and the same, and the extent to which Cumberbatch and Miller take their distinct interpretations of Doctor Frankenstein into their performance as the Creature.

The conceit of the actors sharing the primary roles is more than a fun gimmick intending to lure audiences back a second time, and, even years later on film, it is clear that the concept gets to the very heart of Boyle’s approach, the idea that all men are simultaneously man and monster, creator and destroyer. Thus, in each version we see not only how Frankenstein and the Creature are two sides of each other, but, as the posters for this show so carefully suggest, how each actor finds a similar balance within themselves as their different but valid and meaningful approaches to both roles come to life.

The Creature

Cumberbatch’s Creature begins with a childlike wonder at the world, his body may be formed but his mind is in infancy therefore much of the early part of the show involves the basic stages of human development, learning to walk, make sounds, form words and to assimilate behaviours. There is a wonderous joy to the Creature’s fascination with weather as he plays in the rain or clutches at the snow, while the bond he quickly forms with Karl Johnson’s gentle and caring De Lacey is full of pathos. And the viewer feels how decisively Cumberbatch’s Creature is severed from his own innate goodness and innocence which draws on the religious themes of the play, a symbolic Adam enjoying the Garden of Eden but cast out to become a destructive force.

Cumberbatch’s approach gives this version of the play an almost magical or supernatural quality, a warped fairy tale of man corrupted, playing-out against the heightened reality of Mark Tildesley’s stunning set design in bold reds and orange, or cool mystical whites. The rippling effects created by Bruno Poet’s lighting design emphasise the electrical spark of life, governed by an array of lightbulbs above the stage that pulse and shine with an other-worldliness suggestive of an unseen  God observing and eventually punishing Frankenstein’s folly. Cumberbatch’s Creature charts a path of tragic inevitability, the man who didn’t ask to be born labelled as physically, emotionally and mentally unsuited for society while forces beyond his control shape his destiny.

Contrast this with Miller’s earthier approach which fundamentally alters the air around the stationary elements of this production. His Creature is born a fully formed man, his gestures and movements are not those of tender discovery but of pre-determined certainty, while his mind which is under-developed at the start, is an adult brain struggling to form thoughts and expression, limited by the particular stitches and connections of the anatomy created for him. But most importantly there is a physical heft to Miller’s performance that draws out the dangerous side of the Creature much earlier, making sense of the fear he engenders in others. While he is capable of kindness and soulful contemplation, this Creature is instantly corrupted by Frankenstein’s abandonment and full of rage that good principles and intellectualism will never subdue.

Miller’s approach comments on the fallacy of human society, a veneer of behaviours and imposed moral values that attempt to control and contain the inner beast. Suddenly Tildesley’s set and Poet’s colourful lighting no longer seem full of twinkling possibility and the comforts of God, but dark and unyielding markers of a violent and desolate world. So, as the burning red of De Lacey’s farmhouse gives way to the eerie placidity of Lake Geneva, the tone is far darker, a hopeless landscape of endless fire and ice. The staging is exactly the same, the lighting cues just as they were in Cumberbatch’s version but Miller’s very distinct interpretation casts the whole story quite differently. This is why Boyle’s duel approach is so fascinating, as innocence and darkness contend across the two productions.


By necessity then, both approaches also affect how the actors play Frankenstein, although there are more similarities here because the famous doctor is described by others in the play as aloof and distracted, there are nonetheless subtle differences in the degrees of cruelty that the performers introduce into their interpretations. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is in some ways a deliberately harsh figure, he berates the small mindedness of those around him, angrily dismisses the ‘little people with their little lives’, words he spits out to his creation and actively emphasises his mental superiority to those he supposedly cares for, including his fiancee Elizabeth. Cumberbatch’s arrogant and occasionally smugly superior Frankenstein has a distinctive God-complex, thrilled by his ability to control life and death.

His interaction with the Creature doesn’t make him any humbler, holding fast to the idea that his creation has no right to independence, no fatherly compassion for his suffering or vision beyond his own academic needs. In line with Miller’s more masculine interpretation, Frankenstein’s determination to destroy the Creature comes from a cold scientific belief that he has served his purpose and no longer matters, treating the world, as Elizabeth shrewdly points out, as specimens to be studied and disposed of.

Miller’s Frankenstein has a similar arrogance about his talent as a scientist but he seems more bemused than bewitched by his ability to create life. There is a sense of burden on the shoulders of Miller’s Frankenstein – which sits in the context of Cumberbatch’s Creature emphasising the external drivers of destiny – of weary inevitability that forces his absence from the world. The aloofness that frustrates his family comes from a place of fear and an inability to forge human connection that instead drives his desire to create in the hope of locating his own emotional centre.

The confrontations with the Creature, then, are less affect by the imposing bulk of the man but a powerlessness in Frankenstein as a new sense of responsibility and consequence overwhelm him. Rather than revel in his God-like potency, Miller suggests how Frankenstein is weighed down by his fate, and in trying to fight against it, must eventually give himself over to the certainty of eternal punishment by coming to accept the independence and right to existence his Creature has earned. Thus, the outward signals of these two Frankensteins are similar but the interior life the actors create gives them a different emphasis.

The Creature vs. Frankenstein

Seeing two distinct approaches to the same character proves fascinating and your preference for one version over the other will depend on which actor you like in general and the tone that best suits your interpretation of this famous story. Yet, the two productions really function as intricately calibrated complimentary pieces in which the performers explored the notion of duality. The innocence of Cumberbatch’s guileless Creature fascinated by the simplicity of his own existence contrasts with Cumberbatch’s intense and compassionless Frankenstein, all the goodness and wonder of the world stored in his creation, with all the arrogance of man’s corruption in his creator. Meanwhile Miller’s more brutish Creature who accepts the base nature of his fellow men is met by the emotional uncertainty of his own Frankenstein, a man trapped by circumstance and resigned to his fate.

Boyle’s production is the star and makes you long for the director to return to stage (and slight mourning his Bond that never was). The National Theatre’s decision to stream his two productions is a smart one and they offer a huge amount of insight seen side-by-side. This is the theatre at its very best and on screen, both productions are gripping, using the camera work to richly convey the abstract shapes and grand vision of its boldly beautiful staging, while allowing the connection between the lead actors to shine. Most interesting of all is not whether Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller is ‘better’ in a particular role but what each actor reveals and emphasises within the two roles they play, and where they think the monstrous nature of man truly resides.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature is available until 7 May while Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature is available until 8 May on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel for free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Macbeth: A Psychological Study

Macbeth - Harry Anton, Michael Fassbender and Jo Nesbo

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play and it is a story filled with death, danger and prophesy. With witches and military conquest, kingly intrigue, madness and betrayal, it speaks to us of the price of personal ambition and the consequences of power-play at the highest level of government. Consequently, its influence is widely felt across our culture, the ambiguous attraction of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed antiheroes proves irresistible to so many. Yet, it is not an easy play to master, so intricately has the writer devised the psychological shape that more productions fail than succeed in creating the right (and believable) conditions for Macbeth’s crimes to flourish and die by his own hand.

Looking at successful adaptations of the play drawn from different media – a recent  theatre production, a film and a novelisation – as well as a high-profile production that failed, it is clear that the very best versions of the story exist in a complex psychological abyss. Giving due consideration to the various forces within the play and making them work in harmony is crucial to achieving a credible interpretation however different these may be.

The Play

Macbeth is a play that on the surface seems easy to understand, a regular favourite on the fringe especially (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing), this dark tale of murder, revenge and retribution seems quite straightforward. Yet, there are three fundamental questions that govern the play and regardless of how an adaptation answers them or the era in which the story is reimagined, these questions must be tackled consistently to ensure that the psychological building blocks of the play properly stack together.

First, the role of the supernatural must be determined, is the story driven by prophesy and fate to an inevitable end or are the witches merely a symbolic manifestation of Macbeth’s (and our) desire to believe that random events have divine purpose? Second, what is the role of human agency in the play, does Macbeth use the witches’ forecast to solidify decisions he would have made anyway, controlling his own path to kingship or is he the puppet of destiny, and to what extent is he consciously aware of his freedom to act or his failure to maintain power over the events he seeks to control?

Finally, what is the nature of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, is she merely another victim of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ or is his enthrallment with her own lust for power the cause of so many deaths – this is particularly relevant when, consumed with paranoia, Macbeth strikes out on his own in the second half of the play, confining Lady Macbeth to the shadows. Regardless of whether the play is set in medieval Scotland, a dystopian future or the crime-riddled streets of Inverness by way of Norway, the answers to these questions are the key to unlocking the play and ensuring its successful transition to the stage.

The Theatre Adaptation

Last summer, Antic Disposition presented their nineteenth-century set version of Macbeth in Temple Church and in doing so created one of the best approaches to the play that London has seen in recent years. Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero and with a superb performance by Harry Anton in the title role, the production chose to make the effect of the supernatural fundamental to the story, manipulating and driving events at every turn by placing the witches as servants in the Palace where they could closely observe and shape the action. It proved a smart decision, one that in the eerie setting of the church created a chilling tone as the witches appeared at every death or key moment as silent but menacing symbols of fate, ever pleased with how precisely their interference in human affairs fulfilled their intention.

In answering the first question so decidedly, the result was to create inevitability in the story that affected the impact of human agency, shown here to be fruitless as characters retained merely the illusion of free thought. Anton’s mellifluous Macbeth was cruel and soldierly with no particular love for Duncan. The witches prophesy igniting a latent ambition in him which he gruesomely pursues believing he is fully in control. Likewise, the determination of this Macbeth answers question three as his wife is jettisoned, taking control of the plan to murder Duncan and, while encouraged by her, the balance of power lay clearly with the husband, making sense of his decision to act and suffer alone as the initial object is achieved with remarkable ease.

As Macbeth assumed the crown, Anton superbly conveyed the disorder of his mind where regret and paranoia contended, showing how clearly the events he set in motion spun rapidly beyond his control, demanding further bloodshed along with his surety of purpose as the throne came under attack. There was no human agency in Antic Disposition’s approach and, combined with the ever-visible presence of the witches, Macbeth’s struggle to hold on to the trappings of majesty against the tide of fate cost him his sanity and his life. There was a feeling of psychological completeness for the audience as strands of the play intertwined to become a brutal vision of unchecked masculinity that was partly influenced by a film from four years earlier.

The Film Adaptation

There are few versions of Macbeth that compare to Justin Kurzel’s electrifying 2015 film adaptation that transformed the play into an unrelenting two hour thriller. Its key achievement was to draw-out new emphasis from this well-worn story, examining the consequences of military action and the damaging effects of parental bereavement – the result is one of the most powerful and psychologically perfect treatments of Shakespeare’s play that you will find. This insightful approach used the basis of a warlike society and the demands of masculinity to set the parameters of the story, creating the conditions in which the already damaged Macbeth is convinced to kill his friend before being broken by the parade of battlefield ghosts that plague his mind relentlessly.

In this context, the introduction of the witches and their power becomes a reflection of his fractured personality that may or may not be a figment of his splintered mind, and while they haunt the action, Kurzel focuses on the notion of post-traumatic stress (for want of a period appropriate term) and grief for a lost child as the driving forces behind Macbeth’s actions – illuminated through the inclusion of an additional child witch and framed by the funeral of Macbeth’s heir which opens the story. What ensues is, then, the triumph of human agency emerging from the hearts and minds of a damaged couple exhausted by battle and the experience of continual loss, filling their emptiness with murderous enterprise.

There is a pain in denying the maternal that moves Lady Macbeth into a central role here as her sorrow curdles into desperation for progress. Marion Cotillard’s multi-layered performance emphasises the difficulty of being a noblewoman unable to provide a successor in a deeply feudal structure where her status would depend on childbearing unless queenship becomes an alternative, desirable and unchallengeable means of demanding respect. See also her painfully sad soliloquy that portends her madness as she returns to her former home to address the dead child. And Macbeth himself is entirely in her power, their relationship ignited by a sexual chemistry and mutual respect that is so fascinating.

The psychological consequences so carefully established in Kurzel’s vision are expertly played in Michael Fassbender’s astonishing Macbeth who contends so movingly with the scorpions afflicting his mind, a performance that fizzes and burns on the screen as the effects of his actions both before and after the witches’ intervention play out. Kurzel presents a fresh take, so steeped in brutality and danger that this became one of the most psychologically convincing adaptations of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero – something that writer Jo Nesbo also achieved with his own cruel and merciless recreation.

The Novel Adaptation

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo may seem a strange inclusion but his books instantly have an immersive and cinematic quality that made his 2018 novelisation a surprisingly successful rendering of the familiar story which he relocated to the Scandi-influenced world of the Inverness police force. An avowed fan of Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has openly discussed the influence of Macbeth on his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, so when the chance came to reimagine the Scottish play, Nesbo seemed an appropriate choice. His version departs considerably from other stage and film approaches, offering a modern tale of corruption and power play bathed in a seedy film noir style. In taking very different decisions to the two examples discussed above, Nesbo’s 2018 novel may feel more radical, yet the psychological cohesion of the world he creates is every bit as compelling.

Making Macbeth an aspiring policeman prepared to kill his way to the top job creates different demands on the character and increases the breadth and nature of the interactions that keep him in power. The ambitious officer, by necessity, crosses paths with many powerful men including the Mayor, and while Macbeth kills his Duncan-equivalent early on, Nesbo deliberately holds him back from achieving a wider political power that must act as further motivation for him as he attempts to segue into full management of the city.

In this dark and shady version of Inverness, the great battle is not against other regions within Scotland but with a local, invisible and seemingly untouchable drug lord named Hecat, through which Nesbo poses quite a different interpretation of the supernatural. Fleshing-out Macbeth’s backstory as a reformed addict whose craving for “Brew” becomes a fatal flaw naturally establishes interactions with Hecat’s men who double for the witches. And while there is no actual magic involved, Macbeth still sets his mind and faith to the will of external forces he cannot control.

The page-turning quality of Nesbo’s writing instantly immerses the reader in the scenario he has created as you become increasingly engaged with his expansive realignment of the play including a valuable antagonistic history between MacDuff and Macbeth that colours-in some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s original while providing clear motivation for the other roles with illuminating care. There is no doubt that this is a story of human agency and while Macbeth’s casino-owning partner simply known as Lady is his equal with her own business to run, the protagonist actively pursues his own course (answering questions two and three), while the pull of addiction and lust for power are brought down upon him. It is a fantastic read, told with verve and invention, but it is the vivid complexity and detailed extent of the psychological profile that Nesbo created which makes this novel worthy of comparison with the examples above.

Getting it Wrong

When a version of Macbeth is done well it is gripping, but one duff note in the psychology will bring the whole thing crashing down, as sadly happened to the National Theatre in Rufus Norris’s 2018 attempt which forgot that translating something to a different period setting is no substitute for having a ‘take’ on the play in which its psychological construction becomes credible. Held in a dystopian future after some form of unexplained apocalyptic war – indicated by trees made from bin bags and a central ramp (hill) so steep the poor actors had to tread gingerly to avoid falling over – the court was reimagined as a ragtag group of rebels in concrete bunkers. But the wider implications were less convincingly thought through, materially impacting on the credibility of the play – what exactly was Macbeth killing for in a scenario where nothing existed, what system of aristocracy and government had survived and why did concepts of witchcraft remain?

Without being able to clearly delineate Macbeth’s world order with its fuzzy power structure and limits, this lessened the impact of cause and effect within the play so the production swiftly unraveled. There were witches running in exhausting circles around the stage but their manipulation of events was less certain, few of the incoherent production decisions held together cohesively and psychologically it fell apart. So, by the time Rory Kinnear started awkwardly swiping at the air and wondering if he could see a dagger, it was fatally flawed.

The Psychology of Macbeth

In this brief multimedia examination of the various recent forms Macbeth has taken, it is clear that the very best interpretations have tight control of the character context, creating believable and vivid hierarchies, confines and social structures in which Macbeth’s freedom to operate as a war hero, regicide and tyrant permits and informs his non-linear journey through the story. Whether his lust for power originates in a lack of love for the existing king, his own corrupted grief or mind-altering substances, his resultant actions are crucially bounded by decisions the creative team must make about the role of fate, human agency and the balance of power both within his marriage and the community around him. Build a credible scenario and a credible Macbeth can emerge. Get it right as Ben Horslen and John Risebero, Justin Kurzel and Jo Nesbo did and Macbeth is a blistering thrill-ride of self-destruction, get it wrong and you’re just swiping at imaginary daggers in the air. The psychology is all.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Flowers for Mrs Harris – Chichester Festival Theatre Broadcast

Flowers for Mrs Harris - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

The reponse from the arts community to the restrictions of the COVID pandemic has been remarkable; theatre buildings may be closed for a few months but online the industry is thriving with almost overwhelming numbers of productions available to stream, remote theatre and musical events being put together and new content being uploaded regularly. The speed and dexterity with which this has all happened has been astonishing with audiences consuming it in their millions, yes millions! Some of the newer events are for charity including a screening of sell-out event Fleabag where for a few pounds, donated to support NHS workers, as well as theatremakers and staff affected by closures, you can watch one of the hot ticket shows of the last few years at a fraction of the £200 top seat price in the West End. But much of the content available is completely free to keep the community of theatre-lovers alive, and last week Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) also joined the party.

The theatre in Chichester has long been a major feeder location for the West End, transferring numerous productions in recent years including Ian McKellen’s moving King Lear, a superb version of Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, and James Graham’s last big hit Quiz which has been reworked as a three-part television drama broadcast from tonight. CFT has also had major success with musical productions including Half a Sixpence which came to London, so the choice of last year’s Flowers for Mrs Harris to launch its production screening programme is an interesting one.

Looking at the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor’s show, which premiered in 2016 at the Sheffield Theatre, as a frivolous, inconsequential thing in which a Working Class cleaner in the late 1940s dreams of owning a Dior dress, a consumerist fantasy about fashion that has little to tell us. But across the 2 hours and 15 minutes of this life-affirming production, you will be enchanted by its heart, fall in love with its sweetly self-effacing central character and be swept away by the importance of even the smallest of dreams. For this is the rarest of things, a Working Class musical.

Seeing Blood Brothers again on its recent UK tour, it was a striking reminder of how few musicals truly explore the Working Class experience and even fewer from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. The big new shows of the past few years – HadestownSix and Dear Evan Hansen – are balanced by film to stage translations of American movies such as Heathers9 to 5 and Waitress, none of which had class as a key driver. Apart from Billy Elliot, also a film adaptation, and a Spend, Spend, Spend revival which popped-up at the Union Theatre in 2015, the Working Class have been largely excluded from the modern musical. Even plays tend to be quite narrow in their depiction of Working Class characters (usually living in blocks of flats, dealing drugs or participating in antisocial behaviour), so this heartwarming depiction of a hard-working woman whose decency and humanity make her dreams come true is a tonic in more ways than one.

This production has been filmed with considerable care and with good quality camerwork. It is a broad stage at Chichester and while occasionally the intimacy of the first half looks a little lost in the expanse, on the whole the balance between capturing the myriad interactions Mrs Harris has with clients and friends that demonstrate the breadth of her world, as well as the psychological development of her character as she learns that wish fulfillment is not all it seems, are well presented in the use of wideshots and close-ups throughout the show. But the filming style really comes into its own in Act Two as the story moves to the Dior showroom in Paris, transporting the audience to the Hollywood Golden Age influence by films featuring fashion sequences including Funny Face and Singing in the Rain, as well as the warmly fantastical visuals of An American in Paris.

Director Daniel Evans draws those contrasts so well, comparing Mrs Harris’s dream and the reality of her life in post-war London with some skill. Designer Lez Brotherston takes his influence from cinema in the heightened reality of both locations, delineated by charming painted and staged backdrops of the very different London and Paris skylines. The Battersea of 1947 is overshadowed by the circular metal scale of gas towers and the close-packed terraced housing of the era. Ada Harris’s home is a represented by a welcoming kitchen table and cupboard that imply simplicity but easy comfort, a small but cosy flat where neighbours and friends drop by for tea and cake. The homes of her customers are even simpler, a scattering of clothes and props on the revolve around the central circle, all on a cobbled floor that doubles seamlessly for the streets of London and of fashionable Paris.

In Act Two, the French capital fills the stage more fully and the production really comes into its own as a fashion show transforms it with colour and beauty. Brotherston has created a grand central staircase that references the famous Chanel Steps and adds elegance to the showcase of stunning gowns that Mrs Harris finally gets to witness – and note the newness of the designs and the fresh influence of Dior in the years after the Second World War was considerable and suprising after years of rationing and austerity. The revolve is put to good use here too as a slightly expanded set of characters linked to the fashion house emerge including the head seamstress, the manager and accountant as well as a lonely young model and charming fellow customer. It is a whirl of soft-focus glamour and dreamlike appeal which on camera has the rosy glow and pizzazz of an MGM 50s musical, a cartoony vision centered around a character whose gentle charm grows with every moment of the production.

“Every woman is a princess” is this show’s mantra, inspired by a phrase in the Dior catalogue that well to do Lady Dant gives to Ada after admiring the splendid evening gown she sees in her wardrobe. And in many ways this is a classic story of Working Class aspiration, where, just like Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, Ada Harris dreams of a better life, a different kind of world that could have been hers had she been born in a different class. The light comparison in Act One between Ada and Lady Dant mirrors that between Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers, a chance to juxtapose lives and purpose.

But Wagstaff and Taylor are offering something far more complex in fact, and while Ada covets the beautiful gown, her reasons are personal and meaningful, while at no point does she express any dissatisfaction with her lot in life or desire to be anyone other than she is. It is crucial that she wants the dress purely as an object of art, not to wear or to be someone else, but to lift her spirits of an evening by admiring its cut and flow, a right she has earned by saving and working hard rather than by luck or happenstance. And that is what makes this show so heartwarming, that all she wants is a little unobtainable beauty in her life as any of us might admire a painting or scenic view.

And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is how it continues to subvert your expectation throughout, including an upending revelation in the final moments of Act One as the audience realises things have not been quite what they seem. There are no easy ways out for these characters, so when Ada finally has some luck in the early part of the show and you expect that she will inevitably end up in Paris, before long that dream once again has moved out of reach as fate steps in to dampen the effect of the lucky break.

The message instead focuses on hardwork and kindness in achieving your goals, that participating in community, as Ada does and her clients go on to learn, brings manifold rewards for everyone – surely a message for our times. So as Ada gives her attention and care to the sweet aspiring photographer, the grumbling major, the isolated Countess and the selfish wannabe actress as well as the equivalent workers of Dior that she meets only for a couple of days, Ada as much as any of then learns the value of that connectedness – goodness is its own reward.

What a delightful performance from Clare Burt as Mrs Harris and the camerawork ensures you really come to know and root for her by the end of the night. Her charm lies in her essential decency, a motherly approach to her customers’ chaotic lives and the hardworking acceptance of every trial and tribulation. When discussing the dress, Burt’s face lights up with a childlike wonder at discovering something quite beyond her experience and imagination hitherto, but there is incredible pathos as the audience learns more about this quiet but resolute woman whose earlier life has been unceremoniously packed away. You really feel for her as her dreams come true and generate their own set of consequences which Burt charts with care and sensitivity while never detracting from the determination and drive  to make the best of every situation, largely for the benefit of others.

The secondary cast double roles as Ada’s London clients and friends as well as their Parisian equivalents in Dior. Having been so wonderful in The Grinning Man (and a streamed version of that would be a delight right now), Louis Maskell tackles two accountants in love with an unobtainable girl. The Parisian version Andre has most of the limelight and Maskell draws out the comic nervousness of a shy young man with big wobbly gestures and a hesitancy that becomes very sweet. Laura Pitt-Pulford as his love interest is two quite different girls, the sulky and histrionic Pamela in London as well as the reluctant model who longs to forego the parties for a more homely life. Gary Wilmot is a gruff military man desperate to rediscover the foxtrot and an exuberant fashion house manager, while Joanna Riding takes on two pivotal roles as the dress-owning society Dame and the Dior frontwoman whose gruff exterior melts in Mrs Harris’s presence. Lovely work too from Mark Meadows as the gentle Arthur Harris encouraging his wife to go for her dreams and take care of herself.

Daniel Evans’s production may on camera seem a little stranded on the wide stage which offers little variation in the staging of Act One, but the transition to Paris is brilliantly achieved and by then the loveliness of the tale has already taken hold. One Man, Two Guvnors was a morale-boosting romp last week while Flowers for Mrs Harris is the sweet story of goodness and community we all need to hear. Far from frivolous, this fashion-based drama is a great choice for Chichester Festival Theatre’s inaugural broadcast, from a venue that so often gets it right. Perfect escapism.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is available for free on the Chichester Festival Theatre website until 8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

%d bloggers like this: