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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


TV Preview: The Women of Talking Heads

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett - BBC

The return of Alan Bennett’s anthology monologue series comes at an interesting moment, one where social and technological restrictions meet new expectations on all kinds of diversity, on-set behaviour and the value of the individual experience. When first screened in the late 1980s, Talking Heads was hailed as a masterpiece, gathering some of the UK’s finest actors in a series of short and somewhat radically presented stories direct to camera, celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary and everyday, those closely observed tragicomic moments and personalities that Bennett has always chronicled so well.

Talking Heads is the perfect drama for our socially distanced world, created during lockdown at Elstree using some of the Eastenders sets (part of the fun is trying to spot them), and unlike much of the content created in the last few months no video calling platforms are involved either as the subject matter or the technical filming solution. Staged demonstrated that TV dramas can still achieve a level of pre-lockdown quality under the right conditions, and while Talking Heads retains a focus predominantly on the domestic, as a collective experience it shows what is now achievable as a seamless visual and technical experience, focusing entirely on the storyteller and their narrative rather than being distracted or disrupted by the medium used to deliver it.

Bennett is a writer who has always served his female characters particularly well and in this version of the play set which includes two new or previously unperformed stories, ten of the twelve Talking Heads have female protagonists, most designed specifically for middle-aged characters. Times have changed of course in the last 30 years and recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of substantial roles for older actors, the dwindling representation of working class characters and the sexual exploitation of female actors within the wider industry, and it is interesting to see how well Bennett’s work anticipates and actively responds to these issues.

Bennett writes particularly well for women and within the ten monologues presented here, there is a strong sense of how the outer lives of the speaker and their public demeanour conceals a more complex, often conflicted, inner life. Looking  across the selection, these are characters that modern drama would rarely consider – the quiet and apparently unassuming vicar’s wife, the antique shop owner and pensioner –  their voices and their stories overlooked for women living racier and more dramatic lives.

That Bennett finds the value in the experience of such women and the simmering emotional pull of desire, vanity, anger, grief and guilt is the joy of Talking Heads. That there is drama and meaning in the most ordinary of lives is Bennett’s point, and beneath the folds of the drabbest cardigan are layers of personality, some of it sympathetic, some utterly monstrous with masses of contradictory impulses to know and be known. No life is truly ordinary at all. It is useful, then, to reconsider a selection of these monologues in the light of modern sensibilities, to consider how the new performances bring a different or more developed insight to Bennett’s original text.

Her Big Chance

Performed by Jodie Comer, this is one of the few stories written specifically for a younger actor, dealing with a world beyond the domestic. Directed by Josie Rourke, this version takes on an enhanced resonance in the light of Me Too and thus retains its 1980s setting. This tale of an exploited young actress has many levels, one of which would read Lesley merely as a naive young woman tricked into appearing in a low-rent film and increasingly exposed both physically and emotionally. There is a version in which her failure to grasp what is really happening is a deluded lunge at fame in which she takes herself and her craft far too seriously, the outcomes entirely due to the personality of the character.

But with the testimonial experiences of recent years and those who have spoken out against film and television industry abusers, Rourke and Comer take a more knowing approach, ensuring that both the audience and Lesley understand the scarring consequences of her various encounters, building a moving sense of her vulnerability as the monologue unfolds.  Screening tonight on BBC1, Her Big Chance picks up the story at different points in time, with Lesley pausing to reflect on her experience as it happens, changing the tenure of the narrative as it unfolds and continually repositioning our image of this young woman as the recognition and experience of violation slowly crystallises in her mind.

And it was all there already, between the lines of Bennett’s script giving the performer any number of possibilities for interpreting this character and her degree of self-knowledge, something which ebbs, flows and morphs across the 42 minutes – one of the longest pieces in the set. Comer chooses these spaces between the words to situated her interpretation, putting a brave face on the narrative itself, even half-believing the effect she hopes this will have on her career and desire to be a serious actress, but in those breaths is a universe of pain, fear, regret and sorrow, that truth sitting like a shadow on her soul.

And while in the dozen monologues on offer Her Big Chance is not in the top tier, Comer’s performance certainly elevates the material and shares with her fellow actors a particular ear for the rhythm of Bennett’s dialogue, those fruitful commas that so purposefully create the peculiarities of speech, cadence and the conversational drift between remembered events and the protagonist’s present mindset. Comer uses the camera so well, open and expressive during the early excitement of auditioning for and landing a big film role, before shyly almost guiltily glancing away, the hint of tears as shame and fear creep in.

It is a theatrical experience with takes sometimes as long as 8-minutes in which Rourke places her camera in a confessional space, adding a girlish tinge to her set, dressed with soft low lighting in Lesley’s bedroom while the backstage area of her movie has hints of neon lights and a glamour just out of reach. There’s something of Tennessee Williams about it at times, a caged creature trying to break free and only falling deeper into the mire while the bolshie fragility that Comer unveils is troubling, dramatising her exploitation but always with the understanding of how that will resonate in twenty-first century Britain.

The Hand of God

In many ways, The Hand of God (screening on Thursday 2 July) is an interesting companion piece, fronted by a woman whose financial, social and emotional position seems relatively secure in comparison to Lesley. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas this tale of an antiques dealer failing to recognise an important treasure while preying on the homes of the soon to be deceased, is filled with snobbery, avarice and ambition while retaining its small-world community feel.

Directed by Jonathan Kent The Hand Of God is a gripping 32-minutes set in Celia’s shop where, like several other characters in the series, she watches life beyond the window while recounting clients and encounters we never see. Celia frets about an unsold table, the pressures of turning stock over quickly and the transparent games customers play when hoping to find a bargain.

But Kent uses these really interesting slow-tracking shots, a barely perceptible movement of the camera which during the lengthy segments subtly circles across and then in towards the character as her true nature is increasingly exposed. Using this technique, a layer of surface decency is expunged revealing, more subtly than in A Lady of Letters, the snobbery and occasional venality deep within her character.

But there is something incredibly rounded in Scott Thomas’s portrayal which quietly pinpoints grief and loneliness as the origin of her behaviour, while in her most vulnerable moments when exposed and publicly embarrassed, there is an empathy too that suggests how thin her veneer of respectability has been. Scott Thomas has a way of glancing from the corner of her eyes, fearing what our reactions to her will be. The repeated references to Celia’s love for painted furniture and loathing for the denuded appearance of stripped pine favoured by other dealers is crucial to her interpretation, the mask of middle-class decency, culture and poise she presents  hides a multitude of traits that in Scott Thomas’s contained performance seem to surprise her as much as they do the viewer.

The Shrine

In one of the new monologues, Monica Dolan’s character also finds herself surprised by her reaction to the death of her husband, one which in a sense upends the confessional nature of the previous stories. Although other tales have used the camera to unburden their conscience or their hearts, in The Shrine there is sometimes a marked contrast between the things Lorna tells us she feels and her subsequent actions. And while loneliness is an outcome of her newly widowed state, the driving forces of this story are grief and revelation, as Lorna discovers she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

Give Monica Dolan any kind of role to play and she will be devastating in it, and she has specialised particularly in the types of women Bennett likes to write about, seemingly ordinary, often put upon and fighting against an emotional repression that eventually bursts forth. In this story, Lorna has supported her husband throughout their marriage, guiltily telling the audience early on that she isn’t upset by his death, creating the impression of a once comfortable but now loveless marriage retained through habit and ease because at their time of life they don’t quite knowing what else they would do with themselves.

But Dolan’s performance is full of labyrinths so the audience is never quite sure how honest Lorna is being with herself and what information she has simply chosen to ignore or deny. Soon we discover regular visits to the place where her husband’s motorbike crashed, a spot which initially she insists has no meaning but is one she continues to return to, holding vigil day after day. The complexities of grief in Dolan’s characterisation manifest as subtle twitches and shakes as though holding in a tidal wave of feeling, telling us she doesn’t care but showing us how destructive Clifford’s death has been.

Screening on 9 July with Nicholas Hytner at the helm – the architect behind the reshoots taking direct control of several of the monologues – he directs The Shrine as though the audience is catching Lora unawares in the midst of other tasks. One scene is almost intrusive as the camera takes her by surprise in the hallway, forcing her to confront a knowledge of her husband  that she wants to hide from. Hytner’s approach isn’t aggressive, more nagging, reflecting Dolan’s own performance in which Lorna knows the truth but wants to pretend a little longer that she doesn’t.

Across the 10 monologues, Bennett’s women prove to be not-so-ordinary after all, and watching them in fairly quick succession it is interesting to consider how easily society dismisses or just doesn’t even see so many of these people. Bennett’s particular gift is for peeling back the cardigan to reveal female characters who may present one face to the neighbourhood but underneath are a blaze of contradictory emotions, hopes, fears and possibilities – their interior life, Bennett argues, is just as vital and valuable as anyone else’s. So, 30 years on the decision to reshoot these is entirely understandable, our context may be different and standards of behaviour changing rapidly, but human nature, is constant and whether it is petty jealousies at the antiques shop or inappropriate love stories, Bennett’s women have seen and felt it all.

The full series of Talking Heads is available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Art of Theatre Photography

Present Laugher by Manuel Harlan - Uncle Vanya by Johan Persson - Betrayal by Marc Brenner

Theatre photography is one of the most important ways to promote a new production and simultaneously one of the elements audiences – and probably most creatives – actively think least about. While the contributions of actors, directors, designers and more recently the technical crew to creating and embodying the visual concept of a show are increasingly understood and recognised within the industry, the role of the photographer is vastly underestimated. Search for ‘theatre photography’ and the results focus entirely on technical learning and tips but far less on the crucial role of the photographer in capturing the essence of a production. Yet, to the outside world, their images are the entry point into a show, brokering that relationship with potential audiences.

Production and rehearsal room photos are far more than window dressing and along with posters that increasingly use digital photography rather than graphics, they signal to potential theatregoers what this production has to say. They demonstrate how revivals have distinguished their approach from earlier productions and help new shows to compete in a crowded marketplace, where numerous alternatives vye for your attention and your money. A set of well chosen photographs can do far more than the critics and sometimes even the synopsis to entice an audience into the theatre – as a promotional tool, they are invaluable.The very best production shots can distil the work of the wider cast and crew into a series of storytelling images, bringing the show’s aesthetic as well as its tone, style and psychological approach meaningfully into view.

Yet, only a few photographers are able to truly capture the essence of a production, to encapsulate its quality and depth in a single shot and three photographers have dominated the professionalisation and art of stage imagery for some time – Johan Persson, Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan. Their pictures make the transition into independent objects of art, acting only partly as a visual record of performance and instead largely exist as beautiful images in their own right. These photographers are particularly adept at recording that one defining image, the analysis of which reveals all you need to know about that particular show.

Johan Persson

Persson’s sought after work recently includes Ian Rickson’s productions of Rosmersholm in 2019 and Uncle Vanya (pictured above) at the beginning of 2020, both of which had a painterly set designed by Rae Smith. Persson’s ability to capture the particularly shades of those spaces, the combination of light and shadow in the visuals was particularly striking as forgotten corners of lived-in rooms were briefly illuminated by rays of sunlight from the natural world intruding into a once silent household. He is a photographer that often finds contradiction in an image as the emotional and the physical contend.

One of Persson’s finest images – an arguably one of the truly great theatre pictures – has re-emerged during lockdown thanks to the proliferation of online theatre performances. This image of Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus was printed on the back of tickets before the venue went paperless last year and was framed on their staircase. Memorable even six years on, this is electrifying photography, full of drama and evoking a particular moment within the show where the bloodied hero, victoriously returned from battle, enjoys a moment alone. Crucially as a single representation of this production it captures everything Director Josie Rourke wanted to say across its 2.5 hour running time.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

We see the intensity of this second and its fervent masculinity as the figure plastered in the blood of other men enjoys a moment of post-victory elation. But he is rendered human by the contrasting notes of vulnerability in the image, the painful wince caused by water on freshly drawn wounds, the physical cost of societal expectations of manly behaviour playing out across his body as he privately grapples with the mental and material cost of war, a cost he must tend to in this very private scene that sits between the lines of Shakepeare’s play. Watched through, Hiddleston’s characterisation visits every aspect of this character’s public and private face which is so forcibly and stunningly captured here in this single Persson image.

Contrast that with this photograph from the musical Follies, first staged at the National Theatre in 2017 when Persson took this show-defining photograph, one that eschews the big stars to reflect an obsession with the nostalgic and ethereal that were so bewitching in Dominic Cooke’s landmark interpretation. There is a dreamlike quality to the visuals created by Vicki Mortimer on stage that is rendered entirely in this single image, and while Coriolanus is about two realities – the military and the personal – colliding, Follies is entirely focused on unreality, on fantasy, the impressionability of memory and the despair of lives never lived.

Follies by Johan Persson (National Theatre)

Persson’s image has the same photographic quality as his shot  from Coriolanus but the ghostly image of historic chorus girls backlit against the crumbling facade of the music hall’s brickwork and the illuminated Weismann’s Follies sign, itself in disrepair, pinpoints the emotional confusion of Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis as they travel back in time. The lingering regret of Follies, the glamour of youth and the memory of so much possibility lost is at the heart of Sondheim’s musical. Avoiding sentimentality, Persson’s single shot entirely sums-up a production in which these shadow-selves haunted and comforted the women they became, the Follies itself a now crumbling edifice to something now permanently adrift, a time, a life and a dream about to be crushed forever.

Marc Brenner

Brenner’s work has been just as emotive, a favourite at the Almeida, his photographs have captured moments of great intimacy and flair on stage where external political, socio-economic and military structures buffet the characters as forcibly as their inner lives. Brenner has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Jamie Lloyd, recording all of his productions from the seedy excesses of 2016’s Faustus to the visual simplicity of the remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season, the emotional cavern of Betrayal (pictured above) and, most recently, the brooding linguistic energy of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Last summer, Brenner took this image at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during Lloyd’s superb revival of Evita whose transfer to the Barbican this summer has been sadly postponed. Brenner’s long experience of Lloyd’s work instantly reveals all you need to know about this production. Gone are the elaborate 1980s costumes, the coiffured hairdos and elaborate sets and in their place is Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour’s fresh and unencumbered vision told in the Argentinian colours of white and blue, using the original purity of the lyrics and the music to tell the story of Eva Peron while bringing a new visual language to the experience of musical theatre.

Evita by Marc Brenner (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

In his blog, Brenner writes about the challenge of staging the images of this production, working with the parallel shapes created by Gilmour’s steps and responding to the changes to sunset times that daily affected lighting design across the entire run. As art, this image incorporates that technical knowledge, snapping the moment the light falls on the central female figure, framing her against the even rake of the staging and the almost symmetrically-posed dancers. But the depth in Brenner’s photograph encapsulates and reflects the layers of meaning in the story. Here is the simply dressed but nonetheless charismatic Eva Peron who uses her humble origins to climb the ladder of fame, building relationship with the working classes to sustain her position. The smoke effects speak to the frequency of protest and violence in the musical, as well as the almost goddess-like status that Evita achieved which bookends the show.

Evita’s relationship to Colonel Peron may be a political powerplay, but one of Brenner’s most beautiful creations is this image for Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida (where it was also printed on the back of tickets) which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The performance reawakened interest in lesser-performed Tennessee Williams plays and became a captivating example of two people just missing one another. Famed for its rare stripped back approach, using musical tones to set the emotional beat and pace of the story, Brenner’s gorgeous picture, like Persson’s shot from Coriolanus, is one of the great examples of theatre photography as art in its own right, expressing the hopeless romanticism of the relationship between John and Alma through this one image.

Summer and Smoke by Marc Brenner (Almeida Theatre)

The soft pink/orange glow of the lighting sets a mood for this picture evoking the warm evening heat of the South that is so essential to tone and atmosphere in Williams’s most lyrical work. This highly romanticised scene as depicted by Brenner is a momentary fantasy between them but one tinged with regretful longing. John’s (Matthew Needham) direct gaze reflects his open personality while Alma’s (Patsy Ferran) slighty bowed head and closed eyes speak volumes about her process of internalisation in which this moment of physical intimacy warms and scares her – both hope for so much in this second but already understand it cannot end happily. It is an eloquent and dramatically layered shot, instantly transporting the viewer back to one of the most arresting productions of recent years.

Manuel Harlan

Understanding the same degrees of light and shade in an image, Manuel Harlan’s work, favoured by The Old Vic and the RSC, is incredibly evocative, often recording key moments of change or the thematic subtext of a play that helps the audience to understand the genesis of the production. This image from David Leveaux’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not used in press releases or reviews, and was perhaps considered too oblique as a marketing tool showing neither of the production’s leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Yet, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric summary of a play that recasts two originally shadowy figures from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them their comic due. What happens in this photography is particularly fascinating, recording in one sense the purposeful artificiality of Anna Fleischel’s staging choices – the roll of marbled paper that covers ceiling, walls and floor, the errant stepladder and the strategically positioned lighting – to create a studio feel, while at the same time offering a hint of these two characters overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the world they inhabit and, the small part they play in Shakespeare’s construction of it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Manuel Harlan (Old Vic)

As a piece of art, the illumination of the two protagonists captured in silhouette behind a gauzy curtain speaks to the notions of concealment and spying that are vital to both plays as well as their tangential role in the events at Elsinore. At the same time the hints of colour, a dash of orange on the rear wall and at the top of the curtain add a liveliness to what would almost be a solely black and white depiction of this world. It is a striking piece of photography, one that implies a purgatorial state in which Stoppard and Shakespeare have trapped their characters, not quite real but not entirely fictionalised either.

All too real was the dynamic verve of The Bridge’s immersive production of Julius Caesar staged in 2018 at the still relatively young playhouse by Nicholas Hytner, allowing members of the audience to act as the whipped-up mob crucial to the action in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The immediacy of the production is reflected in this turning-point moment, photographed by Harlan, immediately following the death of Caesar in which the Conspirators begin to recognise the unforeseen dangers they have unleashed

Julius Caesar by Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre)

Harlan, like Persson with his shot of Coriolanus and Brenner in his image from Evita, has entirely caught a defining political and human moment in this picture which implicitly reveals the rest of the play. The artistic framing and use of perspective in this shot are vital, the Conspirators are foregrounded with their hands bathed in blood and purpose achieved, while the ruined corps of Caesar is raised above them, his gaping wounds soon to be referenced in Mark Antony’s famous speech both centralised and slightly out of focus. Yet, the confusion of Brutus, Cassius et al foretells the misdirection to come as they fail to sell their deed to the onlooking crowd, a fatal flaw in their plot which will cost them their lives. Harlan has entirely caught the energy of this room and the exact moment at which the game changes.

Selling prints may not be something theatres want to consider – although in the newly straightened times created by months of enforced lockdown it may generate some much needed revenue – but theatre photography is far more than a series of marketing images. The very best exponents of this art form, Persson, Brenner and Harlan, are able to locate and develop a shot that summarises the narrative and thematic substance of a show, incorporating the director, designer and actors’ vision. But they also move to a realm beyond the physical representation of theatre, these extraordinary images are objects of art, testament to the skill of photographers able to read, interpret and capture these defining moments.

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Series Review: Staged – BBC iPlayer

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged (by BBC)

Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.

Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.

As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.

In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.

Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.

While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.

And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.

As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.

The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.

The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.

Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly  recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.

All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.

The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.

Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.

Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.

Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.

As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.

In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Coriolanus and the Hero-Warrior – National Theatre at Home

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

Coriolanus is a strangely neglected and infrequently performed play, one without the speechifying and introspection that offer psychological insight into Shakespeare’s most popular protagonists. Yet, with its focus on the delusion of leadership, the importance of the mob and the brittle basis of populism, Coriolanus is truly a play for our times. A recent production starring Tom Bateman at the Sheffield Playhouse was truncated by the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to revisit the Donmar Warehouse’s extraordinary 2014 production showing this week via National Theatre at Home and starring Tom Hiddleston.

Six years on, this remains one of the most viscerally impressive productions of the last decade, a fascinating dissection of power, class and the enduring battle between military conquest and political protectionism that characterise Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Wars and conflicts occur across Shakespeare’s plays and, within the Histories especially, this involves many characters whose motivations and purpose in the story vary considerably as families, regions and nations contend for tangible forms of power.

In these plays, Shakespeare is particularly interested in the formation and decline of the warrior as an archetype, charting the dehumanisation process that rids the individual of personal weaknesses and emotion, transforming them into great and celebrated military leaders. The Henriad trilogy is the best example of this, following the reformation of Prince Hal from tavern-dwelling layabout to the principled and invincible monarch-conqueror. There are plenty of moments of hesitation, uncertainty and fragility along the way, but the steel that Henry V displays on the battlefield and in the rejection of his former companions denote the completion of his metamorphoses from fallible human prince to an idealised personification of glorious war.

Equally interesting is the post-war process in which the feted Hero-Warrior, unable to sustain their god-like form, must return to society – something Henry V escapes by dying unceremoniously in Shakespeare’s afterword. Now irreversibly changed or damaged by combat, the Hero-Warrior sets in motion a train of events that lead disastrously to their own destruction. Caius Martius who earns the moniker Coriolanus from his bloodthirsty endeavours takes this path through the play, the self-destruction of a hero unwilling to accept the confines of a society that built him and this becomes the major driver of Josie Rourke’s outstanding production.

Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior

Heroism is an intangible characteristic in many ways, requiring personality traits including decency, fairness, courage and bravery as well as deeds to demonstrate the hero’s prowess. There are several characters who begin one of Shakespeare’s plays already in the position of celebrated military hero – Coriolanus, Macbeth and Antony – all of whom return from garlanded battle with honours and political recognition, the discussion of which dominates the early section of these plays. Yet the very characteristic that made them also becomes their fatal flaw and pursuing it in peacetime takes them on a path to inevitable destruction and death.

In the Donmar’s Coriolanus, the audience is given a vivid picture of the protagonist’s battlefield strengths in an opening section where he descries the cowardice of his compatriots hiding in trenches rather than running into battle. He goes on to take the city of Corioli singlehanded, returning drenched in blood that runs into his eyes, covering his face and upper body entirely – a beautifully staged moment from Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne. Instantly we know that this is a man apart from others, one with superior fighting skills, incredible audacity and, crucially, an excess of bloodlust that make him part hero part madman.

What unfolds in the rest of the play suggests how fatally flawed this Hero-Warrior is, bred for the simplicity of soldiering, the life and death fundamentality of it all, and entirely unfitted for the grey, oleaginous world of politics. In Hiddleston’s remarkable performance, we see the effect of hubris and how clearly the very thing that made Coriolanus also breaks him – the love of his mother Volumnia. The intensity of their relationship, visible on his return to Rome is given physical form in the tenderness of the greeting between Hiddleston and Deborah Findlay, exceeding that for his wife and son. His reliance on her guidance is vital to understanding the path Coriolanus takes, his unyielding refusal to be other than what she made him even when the great prize of political office and power are offered. By the same extension, when he does finally succumb to her entreaties in the penultimate scene of this production and shows mercy to his former home, he places his mother above himself – it proves his undoing.

Shakespeare’s other Hero-Warriors experience a similar trajectory and while their motivation and downfall is conceived differently, both Macbeth and Antony suffer a rapid fall from grace, tumbling from invincible military hero supporting the dynastic sustenance of the state to its most pressing enemy. Macbeth’s ambitious belief in fate  becomes his fatal flaw which in the early part of the play summons his courage to take the Kingship he craves, while that self-same fate becomes a poisoned chalice as he tries to outmanoeuvre the destiny earmarked for him at the start of the play.

Antony, likewise, is in a solid position at the start of Antony and Cleopatra holding a third of the Roman Empire in his grasp while living with the woman he adores. Antony’s fatal flaw – lust – helps to build his powerbase before the play begins uniting two countries in mutual support, but as his strategic abilities are increasingly clouded by his attachment to Egypt, he foreshadows the series of military disasters that lead to his his military capitulation and death. All of these men experience the decline of the Hero-Warrior image during the course of the play, a status and easiness of mind held at the start which they will never know again.

The Military-Political Clash

One of the core themes of Coriolanus is the uneasy alliance between military action and the democratic process, an idea that recurs in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. States are reliant on the bravado of commanders to conquer territories and occupy land, but attempts to translate battlefield honours into consolidated political roles in peacetime society often in the role of Consul or Tribune, are treated with suspicion by the career politicians that pack the Senate. Julius Caesar is the best example of this as the predominantly civilian conspirators plot to destroy their overmighty colleague, the unspoken threat of the violence his legions could unleash on the city a driving force in his assassination and the recruitment of veteran Brutus to their cause.

In Coriolanus the sniping role of Tribunes Sicinia and Brutus played by Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levy starkly exemplifies that division, adding a class angle between the rulers and the ruled as they both represent and manipulate the voice of the people, using political tactics to dispense with the military man they personal despise. The status of Hero-Warrior counts for remarkably little in the political arena, and Coriolanus struggles to accept the legitimacy of a government that requires the frequent sacrifice of his blood to protect it but not his person. And while the Hydra-like work of the Tribunes (a reference Shakespeare returns to throughout the play) makes them and their reasoning entirely unsympathetic, Coriolanus’s own disdain for democratic process and the people become equally problematic for him.

Dismissive of the facile rituals of political conduct, Hiddleston’s sneering warrior mocks the ceremony of installation into the Consular office, pulling at the robe and laurel crown and refusing to parade his war wounds in order to beg for ‘voices’. Encouraged by his mother to comply with conventions, Hiddleston shows the frustration of the solider forced to debase himself as he courts a popularity he believes should be his by right and contends with his own straightforward honesty (brutal though it is). The result is a bristling tension in this production as Coriolanus struggles to flatter the citizens he can barely hide his contempt for as the audience anticipates confrontation. Within the play there is a fundamental clash between the two mutually dependent arms of the state that find each other’s rituals and personnel distasteful, a conflict, Shakespeare suggests in the plays set later that is never entirely resolved.

A Hard-Edged Vulnerability

The early scenes of the play are full of machismo as battles are fought and the posturing of victory informs the audience’s image of Coriolanus as an unyielding and statuesque figure. Hiddleston’s entrance sets the tone entirely as he captures both the commanding figure and personal charisma of a solider whose exploits are widely admired.  It is a very physical performance, his posture set in rigid military bearing with shoulders back and head held high even when lurking at the back of the stage when’s he out of the scene, creating a fearsome impression, using his posture and surety of step to dominate the stage. There is real danger in Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, a no man’s land between rational, strategic thinking and a psychotic madness that erupts into violence as he fights the Volscian’s led by Hadley Fraser. The menace and physical strength Hiddleston exudes ideally situates the fears of the political class as his return to Rome provokes suspicion and jeopardy for the city.

And while it would be easy to play him as a blustering bully or maniac, what made Hiddleston’s performance so memorable is the thread of vulnerability that runs throughout his characterisation, generating a degree of compassion for the ill-fated general. It is an interpretation that gets between the lines of Shakespeare’s text and colours-in some of the emotional and psychological substance absent from a play with no great speeches or underlying lyricism – at least Macbeth and Antony had soliloquies in which they could unpack their minds to the viewer and themselves.

Hiddleston is a very subtle actor on stage, eschewing expansive expressions or gestures in favour of almost imperceptible flickers of feeling that provide a far richer and deeper experience, particularly well suited to the supposed impassivity of Coriolanus. The emotion exudes from within the character, registering largely in the actor’s eyes as they convey the effect of betrayal to the audience. We see a light die in him as the hurts and taunts dispel any ideas he may have had of his homecoming, while the painful process of dressing-up to beg for votes is clearly an embarrassing affront to the Hero-Warrior ego.

But it is the penultimate scene where these vulnerabilities are so movingly represented, broken down by his mother’s appeal for mercy, Hiddleston brings great clarity to the struggle within Coriolanus between the right tactical response to ensure his victory over Rome as well as ensuring the faith of his new-found comrades, and surrendering the advantage to guarantee the life of his own family. Coriolanus must choose between the two sides of himself, Caius Martius and Coriolanus, the soldier and the politician, knowing the latter ensures his own death, a dilemma that is full of agony in this meaningful performance.

The Donmar’s production of Coriolanus is one of the great NT Live recordings, capturing the intimacy of the space and the intensity of the production. The play may lack the grand tragedy of Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra but this production makes a fine case for its value as a study of the declining Hero-Warrior and its relevance to our current political climate. The impasse between deluded politicians shoring up their own span of power and those who lack the temperament for government but can accomplish great deeds is the essence of Coriolanus – Shakespeare shows us it was ever thus.

Coriolanus is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until 12 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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