Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Live streaming Lear

Last week, I caught the well reviewed Simon Russell Beale / Sam Mendes King Lear live-streamed from the National Theatre. I have popped down to London in the past for matinees of Antigone and Timon of Athens (also with SRB) but with trains and tickets the cost is about £130. By contrast, a trip up the M6 to a cinema in Penrith cost about a tenth of that. So the slightly negative thoughts I have should be balanced against that thought.

The production itself had points of interest. For example, modern but fascistic dress in the initial court scene suggesting a kind of rally and nice positioning of the actors (Lear facing his daughters plus husbands in two cases and an empty chair in the third) helped to emphasise Cordelia's difference from the others and explained her sisters' temptation to exaggeration. But later scenes seemed to verge on the hysterical with an homage to Tarantino in a 'wine cellar with corkscrew' blinding of Gloucester. Of the recent Lears I have seen, this one placed the greatest emphasis on the king's initially possible, and then later more obvious, madness. (Additionally, SRB seemed to have borrowed Bruno Ganz Parkinson's mannerisms from Downfall.) Much, in other words, to watch and think about even if it were not all equally successful.

What was more striking, though, was the experience of the live-streaming itself. Initially sitting three rows back from the screen, it seemed to me that a static camera from a fairly central position in the National Theatre would be fine. What I thought I wanted from the experience was a way to access the view I might have had (in fact, a better view than I would be likely to have had for a modest ticket price) had I tripped down to London. But that isn't what we were given (and I understand that this is the norm). Rather, like a film or tv production, the camera panned in to give us close ups of the actors: mainly whoever was speaking. But this had various problems which I will simply list.
  • It obviously takes great skill to direct film cameras. But there is no reason why a theatre should possess it. Given that there were a few cuts to a view of nothing or to a rushed camera move, the National obviously doesn't have it yet. 
  • One often wants to watch the reception of an actor's speaking and doing, so the focus on the speaker often seemed wrong. But further, in the theatre, we are used to having a choice as to where to look. To rule this freedom out without loss would require thinking through more the relation of the actors and their relation to the camera so that we would only want to look where the camera looks.
  • The camera tracked the action in such a way that it was sometimes hard to locate where on a mental map of the stage it took place. This was particularly odd when the camera tracked action on the National's rotating stage.
My assumption is that once one has cameras in place it is too tempting to think of the action as the the raw material for a film rather than as something different. Then again, I did see (only) the film version of the David Tennant Hamlet. With its theme of a surveillance state with CCTV and concomitant paranoia, it was all about the perspective of the camera. But much thought had obviously gone into how that was possible.