Monday, May 4, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Some years back, I had a very awkward experience at a party and (as so often) it was all because of my big mouth.
 I was introduced to a tall and rather severe-looking young woman, whose name now eludes me. For reasons which I cannot recall, the talk turned to live theatre. I said that, much as I enjoyed live theatre, in New Zealand it had basically become the pastime of a tiny group of people. In itself, this did not worry me. Poetry, in which I am a participant, is possibly the pastime of an even smaller group of people, but that does not negate its validity as an art form. But, said I, I was tired of the assumption, made by so many devotees of live theatre, that live theatre is at the cutting edge of our culture, that it is radical, that it is poised to stir up the masses. Its reach and influence are actually very limited, I said. After all, unless one belongs to the very small number of devotees, how many live stage plays does one go to per year, compared with the number of movies and TV dramas and YouTube viewings one enjoys? Then, twisting the knife, I noted how many popular live performances now aped cinema anyway – all those big-budget musicals that try to draw audiences in by their memories of film versions of the same show.
This got a very cool response from my interlocutor. It turned out that she was a theatre critic who prided herself on her avant garde tastes and who responded by talking about all the plays she had seen which defied the tired conventions of film and television and had vital things to say about New Zealand society. The suggestion that live theatre was the pastime of a very small audience was deeply annoying to her.
Naturally I protested (as I do now) that I am not a philistine.  I like live theatre’s ability to present a drama using little more than the voices and movements of the actors.  I enjoy participating imaginatively more than one really does with the movies where (increasingly today) so much depends on visual effects. But live theatre is still a minority pursuit and no longer the mass medium it once was.
None of this mollified my interlocutor, however, who clearly had me typed as a barbarian and whom I last saw glaring ferociously at me as I left the party.
Since that unhappy exchange, I’ve often thought about the relationship between film and live theatre.
I did a lot of such thinking a couple of weeks ago when I watched (on YouTube, of course) an 82-year-old film, the name of which I will not disclose. It was made in 1933, in the era when the techniques of sound film were still rather primitive. As cineastes, film buffs and people who take degrees in film would readily tell you, the cardinal sin of very early talkies was their staginess. Talking pictures took some years to break away from being filmed stage plays, did not use the technical and visual resources of film as well as they could have, and tended to photograph scenes in a rather static way, often with a camera fixed in one place through very long takes. Some people argue that camera work was much more deft, and the camera certainly moved more, in the late silents than in the early talkies.
The film I saw (adapted from a stage play) was guilty of all these faults.. Characters spoke dialogue as if they were addressing the stalls. They enunciated as if they were not yet used to these new-fangled microphones. And there were many of those dreaded shots, so common in early talkies, in which key members of the cast lined up in a row the way they would on stage, if they all wanted to be seen by every member of the live audience. [I illustrate this phenomenon here with two such shots, which did not come from the film I was watching].
            Yet here was a very curious thing. Taking all this on board, I found myself liking this film. Accepting technical imperfections is part of the deal when we watch a very old film, but this did not explain my favourable response. The fact is, I liked it for its very staginess. It was a stage farce and it worked perfectly as a stage farce. I was enjoying the very thing that film critics despise. I was enjoying “canned theatre”.
            And so we reach the age of the revenge of the stage play.
            “Canned Theatre” has made a curious comeback.
            We can now see, regularly, filmed transcriptions of live theatre, such as the Met Opera seasons and the National Theatre Live seasons that appear in our boutique cinemas. Such transcriptions are not exactly films. We go knowing we are getting “canned theatre”, and wanting to get it. I leave aside the Met operas and just say that in the last few years I’ve enjoyed seeing, on screen, such stage productions as the intense translation of Racine’s Phedre starring Helen Mirren; the jolly tomfoolery of Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers and a cast of expert farceurs in Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance; a fine production of All’s Well That Ends Well, convincing me that it’s not one of Shakespeare’s duds after all; and (most recently) James Franco and Chris O’Dowd as George and Lennie in a stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
            In each case I’ve enjoyed a camera staying still long enough to let me enjoy seeing and hearing actors speak long speeches, without interruption or cut-away shots. I’ve enjoyed watching a story develop as dialogue and the actors’ movements. I’ve enjoyed the experience of live theatre. Of course it isn’t live at all. What such transcriptions really give us is the best possible view that one could get in a theatre. Indeed, it may be better than what the live audience of these productions would have seen, coming complete with close-ups to give us the expressions on the actors’ faces.
            In these transcriptions live theatre does become a mass medium once again, because each transcription is seen worldwide and therefore by a much larger audience than saw each production on stage.
So the obvious paradox. Live theatre becomes a mass medium once again, by virtue of not being live.

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