Leone Richmond: The 2012 Globe on Screen season is launching globally this autumn, with three productions that were originally staged at the Globe in 2011 (All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing and Dr Faustus) being shown on hundreds of local cinema screens across the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Globe on Screen comes after the success of various similar schemes such as The Met: Live in HD, NT Live and the Royal Opera House Cinema season, broadcasting opera and ballet to cinemas in 22 countries. The latter two projects have been directed by Ross MacGibbons, who is also the Screen Director of Globe on Screen.
All of these schemes have been extremely successful, with an average of 500,000 people watching NT Live broadcasts worldwide, and there has been a lot of positive audience feedback in terms of viewing and sound quality of the pieces. Additionally, it goes without saying that these schemes make theatre accessible to a much wider audience because of the easy accessibility of a local cinema as well as more affordable ticket prices.
However, even National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner said in a 2010 interview with the Telegraph he has "always been very suspicious of theatre on TV". Despite the many positives of recording and broadcasting theatre, including that archived plays are an excellent educational resource, can the magic of live performance really be recreated on a television or cinema screen?
While the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole mused at this week’s launch that children can watch the plays on an "iPad on a train or on a mobile up a mountain", theatre is not just about the show itself. It is a whole experience with many components, from being in a communal audience environment to experiencing the history of a theatrical venue; the Globe is probably the best example of a venue with a rich history that deserves to be experienced first-hand in all its open-air glory.
So is the Bard turning in his grave at the thought of people watching his epic works on a 5cm mobile phone screen as something to pass the time on a mode of transport? Well, if this is a "hiding vegetables in the sauce" solution to making Shakespeare accessible to children (/mountaineers), surely it is worthwhile, and definitely better than nothing.
The Globe is famous for having a rowdy, riled-up audience shouting the odds and throwing rotten veg from the pit in its glory days. If you throw a tomato at your television it is likely to bounce straight back at you/send it toppling/make a tomato-y mess. Similarly, heckling at a cinema screening is likely to get you some odd looks.
And even if the audience is not particularly boisterous during the performance, there is one time in the theatre when everybody likes to make some noise; applause at the end. People do applaud in these cinema screenings, but personally this feels a bit silly. The reason for it feeling silly is that applause is the chance we get as an audience to show our appreciation to the actors. It is our chance to give something back to them. Theatre is a conversation between two sides – actors and audience – and a piece of theatre in which one of those components is not present is an incomplete, one-sided conversation.
Much Ado About Nothing?
Charles Edwards, who played Benedick in the acclaimed 2011 Globe performance of Much Ado that will be broadcast this year, was also at Monday's launch. He recognises the significance of the audience at the Globe, saying that as an actor, you don't know how the performance is going to run until you get out there and interact with that performance's specific audience. The audience plays an important part, with them being just as visible as the actors due to the daylight conditions of the Globe. There is a lack of alienation effect as the audience are very much acknowledged as a part of the performance.
So how will this be achieved in the screenings? Edwards stresses that the audience and the surrounding Globe features are filmed, which, for original director Jeremy Herrin, makes the whole thing "entirely acceptable". The plays are filmed with the audience in mind, and by seeing the audience, cinema-goers should get a taste of what it was like to watch first-hand.
Another thing that has to be taken into consideration is that because schemes like this are taking a play and transforming it into another medium, some aspects must be altered. For example, the actors wear less make-up than usual to avoid looking unnatural in close-ups. Similarly, the actors may have to rein in their performance slightly to avoid unnecessarily overdoing it for the cameras; there is a problem here as they are performing to two different audiences, for two different mediums. However, Edwards has said that this wasn’t really an issue for him, although there was probably some subconscious toning down of his performance.
Similarly, Hytner stresses that people attend screenings with theatrical expectations with regards to acting style: You don’t worry that Helen Mirren isn’t acting as she acts in the queen… but she’s acting for 900 people in the theatre and for 50,000 people live around the world.”
Unlike NT Live, Globe on Screen cannot broadcast live because of their lack of a roof which may lead to unforeseen weather conditions and aeroplanes interrupting the performance. Therefore they film the play on two separate nights, and then Screen Director Ross MacGibbon edits the performance, involving replacing aspects that went wrong with smooth-running parts of the other recorded performance.
This editing process gives an impression of the screen director smoothing out the 'rough' edges; it sounds suspiciously like an attempt at trying to achieve the perfection and precision of a Hollywood movie. However, with these recordings being archived for uses including as educational materials, it is important that the play is performed as accurately to the script as possible. Charles Edwards also made the point that no actor wants to have a mistake-ridden performance on permanent record. Also, MacGibbon has stressed that he will be aiming to produce a “theatrical performance”, with the broadcasts standing somewhere in between theatre and film.
One indisputable advantage of theatre being broadcast to cinemas or reproduced on DVD is that you can watch from the comfort of your own home. I’ve had one Globe experience in which, crammed into the hot, stuffy pit, I had to miss some of the performance to get some fresh air and sit down. Being behind that lady with the biggest hair in the house, or the excessive back pain caused by standing still for four hours straight is sure to diminish one’s enjoyment of the show. And it would be nice not to have the pitter-patter of rain distracting you halfway through Act Two, although watching the audience, you do wish you were there struggling to put on a bright, primary-coloured rain mac as soon as the slightest drop comes down, and then proceeding to moan about it in true British Globe-goer fashion.
Jeremy Herrin, director of Much Ado, acknowledged that at some stage, the director has to give up what he’s done with the play so far onto the next person, whether that be the audience, or in this case MacGibbon, who will cut and edit the piece as he sees fit, which raises questions about artistic license. However, as the relationship between theatre and technology develops, we need to acknowledge that new creative roles will emerge and be welcomed and needed, having just as much authority in the industry as traditional roles: in ten years’ time roles like Ross’ will be as integral to the theatre industry as a stage director, if not more so.
Live broadcasts provide a steady source of permanent income, and support for the arts in any capacity is always greatly needed: the Globe operates free of any annual government subsidy and relies on charity donations for much of its funding. The truth is that cinema makes more money and attracts a wider audience than theatre (for now anyway). Past broadcasting of theatre, such as Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary, has encouraged a rise in theatre ticket sales, rather than a decrease in favour of the televised version. There has also been evidence of broadcast performances being more popular with lower-income groups than theatre performances.
The hope is that Globe on Screen and these many other schemes will help bring the theatre back as a medium of entertainment equally popular with the whole social spectrum, just like in the glory days of Shakespeare’s Globe.