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Theatre on Television: From Shakespeare to Pinter

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In the last 18 months writer and producer John Wyver’s company Illuminations has made two major TV versions of original stage productions of Shakespeare plays: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet with David Tennant, directed by Gregory Doran; and Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, directed on stage and film by Rupert Goold (which is scheduled for broadcast on BBC4, 12 December at 7.30pm).

This week (1 December), Illuminations are also publishing Working With Pinter on DVD, Harry Burton’s intimate and revealing portrait of the late Harold Pinter.

This is an edited version of a longer conversation between John Wyver and Harry Burton, which you can read in full at mataharifilms.com

Harry Burton: Where does this passion of yours come from for theatre on television?

John Wyver: I’m of a generation that grew up with the idea that theatre was a key part of television’s output. When I started as a Time Out journalist at the end of the 1970s David Jones, the former RSC producer, was in charge of doing classic plays for three or four years at the BBC. He did some wonderful, quite bold things. For example he got Alan Clark to direct Danton’s Death. Clark was a very distinctive film-maker who brought with him a completely compelling performance style and visual language.

Harry Burton: Were the boundaries between stage and television less drawn back then?

John Wyver: There was a very clear Play Of The Month tradition: an established, classic text usually staged in the studio with a multi-camera recording, designed to give to the public who couldn’t regularly attend a grounding in English theatre. I still really resist the idea that watching a theatre play on the screen is in any sense a less valuable experience as an audience member.

Harry Burton: Your Macbeth got a bit of stick the other night on the Newsnight Review show!

John Wyver: Andrea Calderwood said it didn’t work for her because it was “just not television.” That does seem to me bonkers! It might not be good television, but clearly it’s television! To think that you might not expose Patrick Stewart's extraordinary performance to a relatively wide audience in this way is sort of crazy.

Harry Burton: There’s a wonderfully filmic opening out of the stage show.

John Wyver: Both were highly successful stage productions. The Hamlet is a filmed stage production. What Rupert has done with Macbeth is apply a much more filmic language. So the shots are much shorter, the language is built up using editing much more than by developing continuous shots, and it’s closer to the forms of film drama we’re familiar with on television now.

Harry Burton: The Macbeth is really striking visually, in the lighting and use of colour. Visually everything heightens Shakespeare’s language.

John Wyver: There was a very strong concern to hold onto the language and the texture of the performances that Patrick Stewart, Kate Fleetwood and the others had created, to enhance that.

Harry Burton: For actors there is quite an adjustment from stage to camera.

John Wyver: Unquestionably there is an adjustment. Actors like Patrick Stewart and David Tennant are highly conscious of what the film camera can do. But I think the approach we’ve adopted encourages actors to do that modulation much more successfully than taking cameras into a theatre and shooting live. It makes it more expensive, of course. But you get a kind of precision, a rigour and clarity of storytelling. The BBC has been very supportive in doing these two productions, but there is very little belief within broadcasting that theatre has any real place on television. And I regret that enormously. I’m very interested in what happens when a text that is originally conceived for a particular context is then represented in screen terms. But clearly there are a number of writers, Harold Pinter being very prominent within that tradition, who have worked both in theatre and in television.

Harry Burton: I’m editing Pinter’s letters for Faber and Faber so I’ve been looking at the fan mail and letters that came into his office after the TV plays were broadcast, and the amazing response from members of the public who had never seen his plays, never heard of him, writing to say: “You need to consult a doctor before you write another play, Pinter! You’re clearly a lunatic. PS The whole factory agrees with what I’m saying.” And other people saying: “How did you know about my life?”

John Wyver: What sense do you have of his interest in television?

Harry Burton: Well, when Pinter was directing Simon Gray’s The Rear Column for the BBC he started blocking with the actors and at one point said: “So, he’ll say that, and then he’ll walk across there…” The floor manager said: “Harold, if he does that then the camera will be in the shot.” So Pinter said: “Oh. Alright. Well, in that case, he can move there, and he can go there.” The guy said: “Harold, if he moves there then that camera will be in shot.” At which point Harold said: “Ok. Stop.” He took a quick class in camera direction over a pub lunch. Then they went back and started again. Pinter was interested in making things really work for the audience.

John Wyver: Had he resisted doing a television masterclass? Or had no one had asked him?

Harry Burton: No one had asked him. My impulse for making Working With Pinter was to facilitate for other people, including a television audience, the kind of experience I had when I was a young actor being directed by Pinter. Every actor should have that experience.

John Wyver: Actors working with text and a director is a very organic and often very internal process. Do you feel you can capture that with the camera?

Harry Burton: I do passionately believe that. It was archivally driven from my side. I really believe we’ve had a golden age and we’re not going to have much to show for generations down the line. If you don’t retain a living awareness of the values that people like Beckett and Pinter and others really ran with, those values will recede, and you’ll end up with something much more generalised.

John Wyver: What are some of the other factors in that process? Do you need to work over a long period of time?

Harry Burton: On Working With Pinter I had the actors for two days before Harold came in, then we filmed the third day’s rehearsals with several cameras. In other words, three ten minute Pinter scenes had had two hours rehearsal before Harold came in. The actors were terrified. But I was able to say: “Harold will support you.” At its best, the thing became an accelerated process where the moment of discovery was pulled wide open for everyone to see. When I was sixteen I went to see Pinter’s No Man’s Land at the National – didn’t understand a word – but I knew that I was watching something of an intelligence that I needed to understand more about. That’s part of what drives me as a director: I want to give that that I was given away. Not to re-produce it: I want to regenerate it.

Copyright: Harry Burton 2010

Enter our competition to win a DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s award winning Hamlet starring David Tennant as well as documentary Working with Pinter with exclusive footage of the great Harold Pinter at work. Click here to enter.


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