My first encounter with live-relay theatre. A personal reflection and comparison of three forms of audience experience when watching a play, in this case The Tempest by Shakespeare, depending on where we view it and the delivery method used.
In recent years, new technology has allowed those living a long way from theatres to experience live performances in real-time, which is a wonderful development. Small venues all over the world now present live-relay theatre into cinemas, making it accessible to bigger audiences than ever before. But how does it compare with other experiences?
Live-relay theatre in a cinema is neither stage-play or film. It resides somewhere in between those things, as I recently found out. Which left me feeling a little discombobulated by my first experience. The acting and content of the production is not under discussion here, but the visitor experience is. This text explores how attending a play is affected by the context in which we view it.
The first production I saw being live-relay screened was The Tempest, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have been to see The Tempest being performed three times in my life – the first when I was about fifteen, with my school. That was at the Nottingham Playhouse and was incredibly engaging and entertaining. It was a traditional production by a touring group. A very memorable moment was when there was a power cut, creating an excitement amongst a full house of schoolchildren. When the lights went out, both on stage and in the house, we were in complete darkness and told to stay in our chairs. To our delight, the young actor playing Ariel entered the stage, using two torches to highlight his presence. He hung from the tree, he flitted across the stage. It was Jonathan Pryce and was a magical thing to behold, very fitting for the flighty character portrayed. Being in the audience was a group experience, shared and discussed at great length after the show with the actors, and later, on the coach going back to school.
The second was only two years ago, when another travelling troupe performed in a woodland near Bristol, outdoors, using an art installation by Luke Jerram, Withdrawn, as the stage set. Withdrawn comprised of five fishing boats seemingly abandoned amongst the trees, on dry land. The play was a promenade performance, with the audience being drawn through the set by the performers. We were part of the action, not passive onlookers. No elevated stage, unless the script required the actors to clamber onto the boats or climb trees. We were literally on a level with the characters. It was a summer evening and the place was green and lush, the smells of verdant leaves and rich mulch heightening the sense of being outdoors, stepping over brambles, ducking branches.
The most recent was merely two weeks ago and was a live-relay theatre production of The Tempest. It wasn’t screened in a huge multiplex cinema, but in a rural film venue in the Forest of Dean. What a fantastic thing to go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live for a sixth of the ticket price for the stage show, and no long-distance travelling. It was my first experience of a live-relay show and I had no expectation of what it might be like or how it might differ from the other two visitor experiences. All I can say is that it was very peculiar and I’m not sure I enjoyed it. Here’s why.
There are social protocols and dress codes for going to the cinema, as there are for going to the theatre. As children when our father took us to the theatre it was a very special treat. We had to get dressed up and behave, to respect the privilege that one automatically associates with going to the theatre. Men wearing ties, women wearing dresses. That behaviour has maybe softened a little now, but for many, it is still part of the tradition of being a theatre attender. Gin and tonics and posh chocolates for the adults, with ice-creams for the children, was standard fare, and still is. It’s a grand night out.
Going to the cinema has always been a very different thing. You can wear what you want, no-one will see you and no-one is watching, or evaluating you, in the dark. There’s no posing at the bar, no social niceties to be exchanged. In the dark you can put your feet up on the seats, hold hands, have a snog, guzzle popcorn and sip huge quantities of coca cola through an iceberg of crushed ice in a cardboard bucket.
I mentioned the smells of the woodland during the promenade performance and associate the smell of the theatre with lady’s perfume and men’s aftershave. The first thing I noticed on entering the cinema to see the live-relay was the sweet stench of popcorn. The too-warm air smelled thick with it, making me feel quite nauseous. The seats were half empty, the majority of those occupied well above the half-way-up line, to get a good view. I felt very agitated by the smell and the odd atmosphere. The live relay began with an interview between a presenter and a representative of the company that had created the special stage effects. Some of the audience continued to chatter, as if the adverts were on for a film. They were shushed by others who were trying to listen. That would have been sacrilege in the theatre.
Gazing at the screen I tried to compute what it was I was watching. The interviews were filmed very close-up, resulting in huge heads on the screen, filling the frame sometimes. The sense of us all being human size was removed, and with it the empathy one has with live actors. That frisson between knowing that we are all alive and present, and at risk of stumbling, or worse, forgetting what to say.
When the play began the stage set looked amazing. The camera shots were managed by the camera operators, disallowing my own eye to travel around the set as it so wanted to do. I became increasingly aware that my choices of viewing were trapped, which is not something I feel when watching a film. On this occasion, the stage provided a fixed frame and the camera moved in and out and around it. We didn’t get to see the theatre interior, or the audiences there. It would have been fun to wave to them like one does in a live-relay conference – to engage in some way. Instead this audience were left in their seats, deprived of the subtle sounds that feet on a stage make, or the smell of the perfume and chocolates. What I am describing is sensory deprivation.
There lies the rub. There was a collision between the live performance and the film not only in the production values, but also in the protocols of cinema and theatre. The promenade performance was fitting for Shakespeare, as many of his plays were designed to be in the round. A film can create a space for the viewer by taking the eye around from place to place. The live relay was almost like a picture hanging on a wall. An aperture into a wider experience that wasn’t on offer. Flat. Or, at its best, two dimensional.
Last summer I experienced virtual reality headsets on several occasions. I think watching The Tempest wearing them would be amazing. I want to control how I look at something, to allow my eyes to dart sideways when I hear footsteps enter the stage, to look up as Ariel swings down from a tree, the scuffing of a shoe on a board. We experience all art through our bodies, our physical presence is part of the overall performance. Immersion in the magic is all and is what keeps us sitting on the edge of our seat in awe.
Mark Quartley as Ariel, RSC website
I would absolutely recommend that people go and see this live if they can – it is avbsolutely wonderful!