Arthur Wing Pinero (1885)
Directed by Timothy Sheader, Olivier Theatre, London
NT Live national broadcast, 17th January 2013
(Poole Lighthouse cinema)
This is my first NT live transmission. They do it for the English National Opera too, and football matches have done it for years. My main thought and theme here is: “Am I watching a TV play or is the experience akin to live theatre?” The idea is that this is a simultaneous event, transmitted directly from the theatre to six hundred selected cinemas worldwide, to 80,000 people. I think that’s what the intro said.
When I was young, the key event of Christmas Day TV, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and August Bank Holiday was a live farce from the Whitehall Theatre in London with the Brian Rix company. You saw the curtains open. As so often in wilder farces, you saw dropped lines, errors, actors corpsing when something went wrong. I loved it, and the Brian Rix three or four times a year event faded out because Brian Rix said the supply of suitable new family-audience farces dried up.
Technologically it’s easier now. Camera are less intrusive, and the Whitehall farces were one-offs, so cameras had to be plotted at rehearsals. With a long running production, the crew can watch it as often as they want beforehand, and they transmit from later in the run when the production is smooth. The transmission goes to digital cinemas.
The plus sides are weighty. More reasonable ticket prices (though exactly double a cinema ticket), no 220 miles in the car, no congestion charge, no swingeing parking charges … the National Theatre’s rates for patrons are only barely “concessionary” for a car park south of the river. The National Theatre is as good as you get for theatrical comfort and sight lines, but the spacious cinema at Poole, with plentiful loos and spacious public areas shames any traditional West End venue. Pity they only had one person selling food and drink in the interval though. The seats sold out for this very quickly. The live transmission concept gets some way to ameliorating our continual provincial complaint that our National Theatre favours London residents, who can join the “club” for advance booking. If you live 110 miles away, it’s harder to justify joining, and then you find tickets are unobtainable. Most of Britain is further away than that. We joined the Royal Shakespeare Company club, mainly because we’d be delighted to see anything they put on, and the 150 miles to Stratford is a quicker and more pleasant drive than the 110 miles to London’s South Bank, and uses less fuel too. And you can park in Stratford for £5.
NT live – technical
First, the technical aspect. We were in the second row, close to the screen. All lettering had jagged edges. Whenever the camera went wide and showed us the width of the stage, as in the song and dance numbers, faces were reduced to mere blobs. A little bit closer in and the striped trousers were flickering. The picture worked very well on tight close ups, very well on two-shots (with two actors filling the screen). In row two, the resolution is still not good enough on whole stage scenes nor on lettering. It will no doubt get there. It’s nowhere near as bad as YouTube, but I’d liken the wide shots to deciding to watch a VHS tape after watching Blu-ray. Closer in, and the picture works perfectly, John Lithgow’s solo piece washing his face after his night on the run really benefitted from close camera, as did Nancy Carroll’s fantastic work in the last scene, passionate and furious and funny.
I did walk back in the interval and look at the lettering from the back of the small cinema, and it was apparently much sharper, but it didn’t bear walking up close.
Theatre or film?
It’s between the two. You get the “feel” of stage acting and stage projection very well indeed. The close ups show you subtle bits of facial acting that you might get towards the front of a theatre but lose at the back. On the other hand, you miss the ability to look where YOU want to look, so while you’re enjoying a close up on a face, you’re also losing the reactive acting of the rest of the cast. It’s why football commentators have to be present live, and do badly when only watching a TV feed. You need to be able to see the whole thing to see the tactics and the work off the ball. In theatre you need to see the whole thing to fully experience blocking, stagecraft and what everyone is doing, not just those in focus.
And finally … the play
The play is a farce from 1885, and while I knew of Arthur Wing Pinero as a footnote in theatre history, I had never actually seen one of his plays. The lead role of the magistrate, Aeneas Posket, is taken by John Lithgow (Third Rock From The Sun) with Nancy Carroll as his wife, Agatha.
Briefly, they have been married a year. Agatha is thirty-six, but lied about her age, knocking five-years off. When she did so, she hadn’t realized that this would make her 19 year old son, Cis (Joshua McGuire), a mere fourteen. Now she’s stuck with it, and so is Cis, who drinks, smokes and womanizes, thinking himself forward for his age. Cis is curly headed and dressed like Little Lord Fauntelroy, but is already trouncing his stepfather and Mr Bullamy, his fellow magistrate, at cards while enjoying a cigarette and glass of port.
Agatha (Nancy Carroll) left, Charlotte (Christina Cole) right
Agatha’s sister Charlotte (Christina Cole) turns up, and has to be told not to spill the beans. Charlotte is distraught having just fallen out with her fiancé, Captain Vale (Nicholas Burns). They get news that Posket’s old friend, Colonel Lukyn (Jonathan Coy) is in town and coming to dinner. Shock / horror! He is Cis’s godfather so knows the boy’s true age, having been at his christening. Agatha and Charlotte set off to warn him not to spill the beans either.
L to R: Isidore, Cis, Posket in the hotel
Captain Vale (front) Colonel Lukyn (back) in the hotel
Cis lures Posket to come with him to the Hotel des Princes, where he keeps a room for carousing. Ah, but then Colonel Lukyn arrives with Captain Vale … of course they’re pals too, and they want to dine in Lukyn’s old room, relegating Posket and Cis to next door. The women arrive, Vale has to disappear and we get the full farce scenes in the hotel. Hiding behind curtains, under tables, sofas, mistaken identities and so. The waiter, Isidore, is played by Christopher Logan – my actor of the year in 2011 for his role as Bottom in Headlong’s production, and pretty close in 2012 for his role as Petulant in The Way of The World at Chichester. If you can get actors of this calibre in minor roles it shows how very good every single person in the cast is. The tall thin policeman is a hilarious cameo. Anyway, the farce is classic stuff, and all wonderful. Posket and Cis escape a police raid while everyone else is arrested.
John Lithgow: The morning after
Next morning at the court, Lithgow does a lengthy solo piece as he arrives battered and exhausted after a night chased across half of London by the police, Misunderstandings tumble one upon the other, and he ends up sentencing his wife to seven days in jail. All is resolved by fellow magistrate Bullamy, and the truth will out. The flat out, full energy performances by the principles: Lithgow, Nancy Carroll and Joshua McGuire make for an explosive final scene. The end, more or less. I was reminded that the powerful female lead actor was a Whitehall theatre trademark.
The NT Live broadcast included a director interview live on stage before it started. They polished the 1885 script, changing some of those creaky and incomprehensible topical jokes, and adding a little twist at the end. They also added song and dance numbers (lyrics Richard Stilgoe, music Richard Sisson) to break up scene changes, and add a touch of music hall atmosphere. Some critics felt it intrusive and that it slowed the action, but I liked it. At the start of the second half, the song and dance chorus was swollen by half the cast too. It all worked. It’s a very good farce indeed, the usual Olivier Theatre fluid and impressive stage design, and a reminder that the National Theatre can roll out a cast second to none at will. The set was designed to look like a pop up book, and the hair styles were done to match.
We enjoyed the evening. The price says it all: double a cinema ticket, half a theatre ticket. It’s about fair. I’d love to see have seen it at the theatre, as with high-speed expertly done farce there’s no substitute for actually being there with infectious laughter all around you. But it was a very good way of getting to see a play we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see, and it did feel “live” unlike (say) a DVD of a play filmed in sections on a stage for posterity.
They caught it early in previews and were less than enthusiastic, but as Nancy Carroll says laughter is based on microsecond timing, and that grows with practice in a part. Two comments I will take issue with:
It also seems perverse to cast the American actor John Lithgow as the very English magistrate. He isn’t quite able to disguise his transatlantic twang
John Lithgow, the highly distinguished American stage and screen star, has to follow in the footsteps of Alistair Sim and Nigel Hawthorne as Mr Posket and he acquits himself well enough. He is very good in Posket’s morning-after monologue where he relives the shame of his night-chase across London and vainly tries to cleanse his soiled face with his shirt-tail. But it still strikes me as a piece of odd casting since the role requires a peculiarly British sense of pompous dignity upended: I kept wondering what the great Arthur Lowe would have made of the part.
I have spent days in recording studios checking English and American actors for English Language Teaching. I’m highly attuned to deviation from one variety into the other. I would happily cast John Lithgow for a specifically British English session tomorrow. And what is a “Transatlantic twang”? Critics also watched Anne Hathaway in One Day, and Kevin Spacey in Richard III ignoring the performance and waiting for the tiniest perceptible deviation. Put it this way, Lithgow is playing a well-travelled man of fifty. Mr Spencer must have a needle point view of the range of British RP accents, because Lithgow convinces within a range acceptable to most of us. Voice recognition software works because our voiceprint is as identifiable like a fingerprint. We all have slightly different sounds.
And yes, I agree, Arthur Lowe would have been wonderful, but quite different.That’s why you go to see the same play in different versions.