Theatre and the Screen: A Fruitful Marriage?

by Chloe Cheung

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Picture this: it’s 1984 and the Two Minutes Hate is raging. A huge supra-stage screen shows an enemy of Big Brother being shot in the head.  

That was the Oxford Playhouse’s critically acclaimed production of George Orwell’s 1984, but even the most sporadic of theatregoers might be familiar with the growing dramatic innovation of marrying stage and screen.  

It is a phenomenon that has seeped down even into amateur dramatics; spectators of King Lear at Keble’s O’Reilly Theatre earlier this year can’t fail to remember the Fool’s clumsy but evocative live filming, or the larger-than-life projection of Regan’s and Goneril’s incestuous kiss.

But let’s rewind to the Renaissance – the birthplace of secular drama in England.  During this era the theatre was a space in which people on all ends of the social spectrum could confront society’s most pressing concerns.

In contrast, theatre is now a much more exclusive institution, with some West End seats costing close to £100.  

So does theatre have a future in the modern world?

If the National Theatre Live broadcast of the Barbican’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is anything to go by, audiences are still hungry for the chance to see live drama.

“Cinema can democratise the experience of theatre”

The first National Theatre Live transmission of Phèdre, featuring Helen Mirren, premiered in June 2009.  According to their website, the NT has, to date, broadcast to ‘over 3.5 million people in more than 1,100 venues around the world, including 550 in the UK alone’, a testament to the reach of these important works of art.

Moreover, with seats for a broadcast of Hamlet costing upwards of £15 – more than a standard cinema ticket but much less than the cost of an average theatre ticket in London – cinematic screenings can make theatre a more financially viable option for those unable to make it down to the capital to see high profile actors in high profile shows.

As I watched Hamlet unfolding, it occurred to me that cinema can democratise the experience of theatre.  Different camera angles afford us all the best perspectives with which to view the action; the camera’s ability to zoom intensely focuses on certain moments or faces, facilitating access to new layers of meaning. One no longer has to sit in the stalls, or even the theatre itself, to have the best seat in the house.

What’s more, the Barbicans Hamlet seems to me the perfect show to bring together stage and screen.  

“It’s a shame Turner conceded to the critics and didn’t uphold her vision.”

That director Lyndsey Turner intended to transplant the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from Act III to the very beginning of the play, highlights the cinematic influences: starting  in medias res would have plunged us into Hamlet’s psyche, building our sense of foreboding from the outset.  It’s a shame Turner conceded to the critics and didn’t uphold her vision.

Other directorial choices were equally fascinating.  During a banqueting scene at the start of the play, Hamlet clambers onto the table and delivers a soliloquy as the rest of the characters move in slow motion around him, gradually speeding up until they all flurry out of the hall at full speed.  This technique focalises the action on Hamlet and is cinematic in its very origin.  

Although watching the Barbican’s Hamlet on the big screen didn’t have the same immersive, emotive experience as being physically sat in the theatre, it was nevertheless a thought-provoking way to experience one of the most anticipated shows in theatre history.

The interaction between stage and screen is still in its early days, yet it is a collaboration from which not just theatre and film professionals, but we as audiences, are yet to reap the full benefits.  

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The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Alex Waygood & Aidan Chivers.

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