The BBC Should Broadcast More Theater

This weekend, the BBC broadcast a filmed-in-theater production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, and filmed at the Almeida Theatre in 2017. This seems to have been very popular, judging from reactions in the press and on social media. Why don’t they broadcast filmed theater more often?

Live theater broadcasts have become commonplace in the UK, with productions from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company beamed to cinemas several times a year. The NT Live series presents about one production a month – sometimes live, sometimes “encore” productions that they filmed in previous years – and the RSC broadcasts their Shakespeare productions, four or five a year, and has done so since 2014. (The first RSC live production was in late 2013; Richard II, starring David Tennant.) And another series, Cinema Live, produces the occasional play, along with music and dance productions.

These cinema broadcasts – part of what is called “event cinema” here, which includes operas, concerts, etc. – are now a staple of cinema viewing, but they are expensive. Tickets cost around £20 (depending on whether one is a member of a cinema, and some cinemas charge more or less depending on the event), meaning they are out of reach for many people. In addition, they tend to sell out quite early, so people who only hear about them near the time of the broadcast can’t even get tickets.

An article in the Guardian today discusses how well Shakespeare “translates to the small screen,” and suggests that if Will were alive today, he might be a show runner. This article discusses not just theater being filmed, but also other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, such as the recent Hollow Crown series of history plays, and the forthcoming King Lear, with Anthony Hopkins leading a constellation of stars.

But why not just film more plays in the theater and broadcast them on TV? The BBC being a public broadcaster could make these broadcasts more frequent than the few times a year, and they could range from Shakespeare to comedies, from musicals to popular theater. After all, theater companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company receive a fair amount of public money; why can’t they give back with some of their existing films so the general public can see theater in their homes?

While the RSC releases DVDs and Blu-Rays of their filmed productions, so anyone can buy them, and, presumably, libraries can stock them to loan, the NT Live productions sit gathering virtual dust in an archive. None of them are released on disc, and the only way anyone can view them is to visit the National Theatre’s archive, which isn’t very practical for anyone outside of London.

The quality of these filmed productions is impeccable; there’s a great deal of know-how and technique that has been developed in recent years, so these films aren’t just a couple of cameras switching between long views and close-ups, but are rather well choreographed presentations of the plays. They make theater come to life in a way that, while different from being physically present, is still powerful. As a regular theater-goer – often selecting front row seats to be as immersed as possible – the films are certainly different, but they are their own from of production, which can be often as good as being in the theater. (Better, if all you can get are the cheap seats.)

The main question for theaters is whether these live broadcasts cannibalize ticket sales. With the current RSC production of Macbeth being broadcast to cinemas on April 11, it’s clear that this is not the case. The production, starring Christophe Eccleston, is sold out for its entire run through September in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for its shorter run in London. Quite the contrary; it seems that, in many cases, these broadcasts get more people interested in the theater, potentially selling more tickets to the actual productions. The National Theatre had a revival of Amadeus last year, and this was so popular that they’ve brought it back again this year. The NT Live broadcast certainly didn’t reduce the demand for tickets, and may have actually helped sell more.

In the end, it’s about providing TV audiences with a variety of programming. There’s plenty of low-brow fare: weekend comedies, soap operas, reality shows, murder mysteries, and the like. Would it be that hard to broadcast, say, one filmed play a month? It’s certainly not a question of cost; it’s much less expensive to film a stage production than it is to reproduce the same play in a studio or on location, or to shoot a TV movie. The technology exists, is widely used, and there are production companies who have a great deal of experience. It’s probably more a question of the BBC not wanting to seem “elitist,” as if presenting theater on TV would be a bad thing.

As a regular attendee of theater productions, I would welcome this. I would love to see not only the NT Live and RSC productions on TV, or productions like this Hamlet, but also original productions from smaller theaters. Let the TV watching public discover the riches of theater in the UK.

Theater Review: Macbeth, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Given the price of theater tickets, it’s not uncommon to depend on reviews to help make your decisions. In my case, living just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, I get tickets for all the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Shakespeare plays, and many, if not most, of the other plays they perform. (Though after having been disappointed by a number of plays in the Swan Theatre, where they present works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as recent plays, I’ve decided to sit out a number of them.) Many people trust the opinions of theater critics, perhaps more so than, say, movie or book critics, because of that cost.

But we buy tickets well in advance in order to get good seats, and often all we know about a play is who is directing it; in some cases, we know who the lead actors are. With the current Macbeth, which opened this week, the play was announced (if I recall correctly) last September, with tickets sold starting in October, so we essentially trust the RSC to put on good productions.

And this one is essentially sold out; you may find the occasional return, but the draw of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth was enough to provide the best sales the RSC has had, most likely, since another ex Doctor Who (David Tennant) played Richard II in 2013.

When previews started for Macbeth, I heard some distressing comments from some RSC-loving acquaintances: people who are generally upbeat about all RSC productions were very down on this play. Some greatly disliked it, and others felt it was weak overall. The press hasn’t been very kind; press night was Tuesday, and good reviews are scarce, with the majority coming in – on the standard scale of five stars – at two or three stars. I don’t recall seeing so many negative reviews of an RSC show since the 2016 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

At the same time, the National Theatre in London is running its own Macbeth (it turns out the play is on the GCSE curriculum in the UK this year, which explains why there were so many teenagers in school uniforms at the theater last night) which has also been savaged.

Of the four big plays – the others being Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello – this one is my least favorite. I’ve often found it a bit confusing, and it’s a very subtle balance to get a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that work well together. For example, a version with Kenneth Branagh that was broadcast to cinemas in 2013 was visceral and powerful, but I didn’t care for Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth (curiously, another Doctor Who alumnus).

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Theater Review: King Lear, with Ian McKellan, at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

I’ve long been a fan of Ian McKellan – the serious actor, not the Gandalf or X-Men character (though I thought he was great as Gandalf) – and when I heard he was performing King Lear at the small Minerva Theatre in Chichester, I made sure to get tickets. As often with the theater in the UK, this involves taking out a membership to be able to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (We have memberships currently at four theaters, alas.) I was able to get front row seats for this short run of about five weeks.

Expectations have a great influence on how one appreciates an event, and one is at times disappointed, because the ideas one has in the mind exceed the actual event. This was not the case with this production of King Lear.

The theater itself is one of the key elements to this production. Small, with just 280 seats, and with a thrust stage, there are only seven rows, so even if you’re in the last row you’re not far from the stage. This means the actors don’t have to project their voices very much; their tone can be more conversational. Watching this performance from the front row was like having King Lear in one’s living room; albeit a large living room. The stage itself was a circle, about 25 feet in diameter, and about a foot high; this meant that the actors were at the same level as the audience. Covered with a red carpet for the first part of the performance, it was a stark chalky white for the second part.

Lear opens with a brief scene where Gloucester is talking with Kent, and introduces his bastard son Edmund. It then switches to the scene that sets everything in motion, where Lear splits up his kingdom among his three daughters. The characters in modern dress enter with pomp and music, all of them singing in praise for the great King Lear. The wall behind the stage opens to show a huge painting of Lear, and a lectern is installed, where the king speaks. A large desk brought onto the stage for him to use dividing his lands on a map (with scissors).

12 Ian McKellen in the title role of KING LEAR at Chichester Festival Theatre Photo Manuel Harlan DR2 31

(Photos by Manuel Harlan.)

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Theater Review: Girl from the North Country, by Conor McPherson, at the Old Vic

North countryThose who know me will not be surprised that when I heard a play was being produced in London based on songs by Bob Dylan, I would rush to get tickets. My partner bought a pair of tickets as a Christmas present last year, and we were in the front row, dead center.

This is the first time Dylan has authorized the use of his music on stage since an ill-fated dance-based show by Twyla Tharp in 2006, that lasted a mere three weeks on Broadway. Dylan’s record company, Sony, approached playwright and director Conor McPherson asking if he would be interested in writing something around Dylan’s songs, and while he was reluctant, he came up with an idea and submitted it to Dylan’s management. They approved, and he went ahead with the project. The theater describes it as follows:

Duluth, Minnesota. 1934.

A community living on a knife-edge huddle together in the local guesthouse.

The owner, Nick, owes more money than he can ever repay, his wife Elizabeth is losing her mind and their daughter Marianne is carrying a child no-one will account for.

And, when a preacher selling bibles and a boxer looking for a comeback show up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral beyond the point of no return…

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Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.

This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.

While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.

But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.

Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)

It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.

I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.

Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.

(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)

Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

There’s something about Titus Andronicus that attracts me. Not the bloody parts, though it is the bloodiest Shakespeare play. But the complex schemes of revenge that weave in and out of the play. Tamora, the Goth queen, wants revenge on Titus for having killed one of her sons. When Tamora’s sons rape and maim Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, he wants revenge on them, and their mother. And Aaron wants revenge on everyone.

It’s easy to just watch this play and be mesmerized by the violence; it’s a sort of Game of Thrones on stage. And the language isn’t the best of the Shakespeare plays; he didn’t even write it all, but collaborated, most likely, with George Peele. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it fits in a context of the very popular revenge tragedy of the time. To a society where torture and public execution were commonplace, a couple dozen violent deaths in a play was no biggie.

As the RSC says on its website:

PLEASE NOTE:

TITUS ANDRONICUS Shakespeare’s bloodiest play …

CONTAINS SMOKE EFFECTS, GUNSHOTS, SEXUAL CONTENT, WITH VIOLENT AND POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING SCENES.

The RSC is presenting Titus Andronicus as part of its Rome season, together with Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus (the latter opens in September. While this play is said to be rarely performed, this is actually the second time in four years that the RSC has mounted it. (Here’s my review and account of a discussion with the director and some of the actors from 2013.)

The current production is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who directed The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre last year, a production that got (in my opinion unjustified) poor reviews. With David Troughton as Titus Andronicus, Nia Gwynne as Tamora, Martin Huston as Saturninus, and Hannah Morrish, this is a very strong production. Yet it’s not without its faults.

To start with, the show belongs to David Troughton. Having seen him as the brilliantly pathetic Gloucester in last year’s King Lear, I was looking forward to seeing him in a lead role. And he commands the stage, from beginning to end. When he returns to Rome, he looks a bit farcical, in his Salvation Army-type uniform, and with his right hand shaking, he is visibly old and past his prime. As the play progresses, he becomes more and more Learish – yes, I would love to see Troughton play that part – as his despair becomes single-pointed folly aiming at revenge. His performance is memorable, and no matter what you think of the rest of the play, it’s worth seeing him in this role.

Titus Andronicus production photos 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 222274
(Photos by Helen Maybanks ©RSC)

For this production is far from perfect. It opens with a somewhat pointless West Side Story type dance routine, pitting protesters against riot police, which doesn’t add anything to the story, and is quickly forgotten. (This is a modern dress production, unlike the two other Rome plays, which are full toga.) McIntyre oscillates between very serious scenes, full of pathos, and some farcical elements that seem like ideas that someone sketched out on a napkin, and decided to keep. For example, Titus in a Beckettian cardboard box when Tamora is pretending to be “Revenge,” in the second half of the play, just seems ludicrous. As does the “Deliveroma” guy on a bicycle, who brings a note to the emperor, along with pigeons that are in a hot-pack on his back. Or the scene when Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius are sunning themselves on an imaginary beach. There’s even an attempt at comedy, when Titus asks a man in the front row if he has any money, or someone a couple of rows back, by one of the voms, if he has a pen and paper. This is not a comedy, and it’s a bit confusing to see scenes that attempt to portray it as such.

Even some of the more poignant scenes miss the mark. The scene when Marcus Andronicus discovers his niece Lavinia after she has been raped and maimed is one that should be very moving. It starts out that way; she comes onstage with her panties and pants around her ankles, her body covered with blood, and her part in the scene is exemplary. But Patrick Drury, who plays Marcus, speaks like an actor in a pantomime, and breaks the magic.

In spite of these reservations, this is an excellent production. Martin Huston as Saturnius shows the same cutthroat brilliance as he did as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Hannah Morrish as Lavinia is excellent throughout, first as a sort of Ivanka Trump character, then, after she is assaulted, even mute she is very expressive. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is full of guile and wit.

Titus Andronicus production photos 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 222250

And Stefan Adegbola as Aaron… What a wonderful performance. The role of Aaron is an extraordinary one. As a proto-Iago, Aaron is not subtle; there are no handkerchiefs, but direct suggestions about how Chiron and Demetrius can find Lavinia and rape her. His hatred for the world is obvious, notably in his final lines (which occur just before Lucius’s lines that end the play):

O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

Titus Andronicus production photos 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 222406

And then there’s the blood… The RSC does go out of its way to highlight the bloody nature of this play, and the violence is a bit excessive. But it doesn’t have the shock factor that the 2013 production had when Rose Reynolds as Lavinia came on stage for the first time after she was assaulted. From my review in 2013, after seeing the production a second time:

“But the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia – Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off – is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage.

[…]

“At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.”

That, for me, was the defining moment of the 2013 production, and nothing in the current staging comes close.

The play is a bit long – just under three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – and the second half, which features more of the farcical moments, feels weaker than the first. But overall it’s excellent, and the audience last night gave the cast – particularly David Troughton – rapturous applause. This is a fine production, just short of excellent, and should not be missed, either on stage or in the cinema.

Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company.