Saturday past I found myself sitting in Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema gearing up with for the National Theatre’s live broadcast of Othello. This is my third live screening so far, the first being The Habit of Art and the second being the Globe’s Twelfth Night.
I still have no idea how I’m meant to feel about live screenings. The principle of it is entirely sound, but…it’s weird. It’s really, really weird. You’re dislocated from the live event, and you’re listening to another auditorium’s response to the play as well as your own. I can’t even begin to think how much weirder it is for the actors. But of the two theatres, the only one that’s got it even close to right (whatever that may be) is the Globe:
Turn up at cinema. Show adverts for other live screenings (fair enough). Begin show. Interval showing the stage. Resume show. End.
In that environment, showing the audience does actually make sense because of the style of theatre the Globe is: situated around the entire stage. Similarly, cut shots between actors gives you the perspective from all angles of the auditorium.
Unfortunately for the National, I don’t think they’ve quite nailed it. I don’t want to see the audience that is there. I don’t want to see close ups of the actors, either, if it means completely negating the rest of the stage. When you see a play, you see it panorama, not zoom. Why bother having a director at all, who’s job it is to make those audience-focus moments happen, if you’re going to let the camera do her/his work for you? The National has evidently learnt it’s lesson from the The Habit of Art, when it decided to show audience reaction and the camera rigging on occasion, and I’m thankful for that. Then again, live-streaming is still fairly embryonic.
I’d read an interview with Adrian Lester that he had delayed playing the role for many years, seeing race as a non-issue in the play and the wider social-context. Needless to say I was intrigued, since Othello is my favourite piece of Shakespeare.
It worked. The cutting of lines, emphasis on others, the modernisation (which is invariably a recipe for a disaster with classics), the impressive set – it all worked. Othello is, in reality, a contemporary play that has a timeless quality. It will always have a relevance. Admittedly, it does get a little farcical towards the end where three people are dead and everyone in the room is looking at them, but then again I do have an odd sense of humour.
I have always believed that when Shakespeare is done right, actors in tights become believable people having believable conversations, if very eloquent ones. When the language overcomes the archaic and just makes sense, that’s when the job has been well done by all. Othello is a man who’s open nature is his downfall; Desdemona’s passion for life works against her; Iago’s cunning is bred by his venomous perusal of revenge.
While I’m not on the Rory Kinnear (Iago) bandwagon, the poison in his delivery and behaviour was disturbing. At times, however, it became a bit comical. His body and voice so stricken with envy and digust, there were times when I was expecting him to do a Ray Winstone and shout
“Oi’m Bayowoolf. Oi’ve come t’kill yaw monstah”.
There were, at times, moments of clowning with his glances and nods to the audience, which received laughter at moments that shouldn’t be laughed at. For example, when Iago tells Othello of Cassio’s sleeping whispers and actions. Othello is distraught, and yet the audience at the National found it hilarious. That entire scene where Othello is playing into Iago’s hands, the audience laughed, changing the energy.
I refrain from mentioning Lester, Olivia Vinall (Desdemona) and Lyndsey Marshal (Emilia) simply because I enjoyed what they did too much. Although it is worth mentioning that I had never read Emilia as powerful a character as Marshal depicted; very impressive.
What struck me the most, and it’s probably down to the skill of the fight director Kate Waters, was the final scene of Desdemona’s murder. We all know Othello kills her, that never changes, that she screams
“Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!“
in desperation, all to no avail. But for some reason, it never struck me that in performance her death would be on stage, and that she would indeed need to be seen fighting for her life. And that is what we saw. A young woman fighting her soldier husband, urgently trying to escape his hands. It was horrible.
For a live stream that I reluctantly wanted to go see (work that one out), I was surprised. The Habit of Art wasn’t a great experience, although I think a large part of the fault lay in the piece (and judging by the reviews, I’m one of the few that didn’t think it was very good), so my expectations weren’t exactly high to begin with. I would still have preferred to see it live.
Film will never replace live performance and, unless teleportation becomes a feasible reality, no amount of technology will ever change that.