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Back for the future: NT Live’s The Cherry Orchard

I was delighted to be invited last night to watch the live transmission from the Olivier Theatre on London’s South Bank of Howard Davies’ production of The Cherry Orchard. If I’m honest I found the staging itself, which stars Zoe Wanamaker, a little dull, especially in the first two acts. Chekhov demands such precision if he is to play convincingly, and too many of the cast (I would except Conleth Hill as Lopakhin) lacked the rigour that his characters and confrontations demand. But while the drama itself left me too much unmoved, I was fascinated to see NT Live’s six HD cameras in action. The operation reminded me of nothing so much as classical studio drama, much of it comprising plays originally written for the theatre, of the kind that dominated the broadcast schedules in the 1950s and early 1960s.

NT Live marketing for The Cherry Orchard

In the Olivier there were five cameras in operation for most of the broadcast, with a sixth hand-held one used for just a single sequence. Three of the main cameras were mounted on fixed pedestals centre-stage and just in front of what would once have been the footlights. These cameras could be raised and lowered but otherwise operated from a fixed point. And as with the other cameras, each was manually operated — as opposed to some systems (such as that used by Berlin Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall) which employ unattended cameras with remote controls.

The other two cameras were on short tracks that were set in the auditorium at an angle to the stage. They could move so as to shoot directly across the front of the stage, but there was no possibility of ‘crossing the line’ and achieving any kind of reverse shot. For audience reaction, at the end, at least two of the cameras simply turned round and faced the auditorium. The resulting images must therefore have offered a strongly ‘frontal’ sense of the experience, as has been the case with other NT Live broadcasts (although not exclusively so — judged from a cinema seat, Frankenstein achieved a rather different spatial sense; see my blog post here).

Just after the interval, at the start of Act III, as the party is in full swing at Ranyevskaya home, one cameraman stood on the front of the stage to catch some close-up, from-the-shoulder images of the frenetic game of musical chairs. The audience, of course, was aware before entering the auditorium that the evening’s show would be broadcast, but I am still surprised at their tolerance of the imposition of technology. Many years ago, we filmed Opera North and Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, and for several scenes we put two camera operators on stage right inside the action; astonishingly, there were no complaints and several people commented that it all made the evening rather more interesting.

I have not (yet) been able to compare last night’s experience in the theatre with how the HD transmission came across on cinema screens; I may be able to catch a reprise ‘as live’ showing but to date NT Live have not released any of their main productions on DVD (The Cat in a Hat, aimed primarily at a young audience, is an exception). Part of the reason for this reticence is the National Theatre’s concern to retain a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’ for the cinema broadcasts, but there may also be rights complications.

NT Live, along with other initiatives to present screen versions of stage productions like Digital Theatre and Stage on Screen, falls outside the Screen Plays project’s strict terms of reference — we are studying stage plays produced for British television. But they are clearly a key part of the context within which we are undertaking our research, and we want to explore a number of comparisons in their operations and achievements. As I say above, the camera configuration on Thursday was very close to that in use in live studio drama in the 1950s and ’60s, and there are other echoes too: a concern to develop access to the theatre for audiences otherwise denied this by geography, cost, social or mobility issues, plus of course the ‘live’ quality, which is now so rare in television drama and which for me is so important to the success of NT Live.

I have blogged for Illuminations over the past four years about, first, the Metropolitan Opera’s experiments in broadcasting to cinemas, and then about the theatre initiatives. Included below is a selection of links that provide some recent background — and one of the projects I want this blog to promote is a list of recent non-broadcast screen versions of theatre plays. Do read in particular the pair of posts about the 2010 NESTA research into NT Live, and then track down the NESTA reports themselves (which are freely available online) — they contain a great deal of fascinating information and analysis.

Live from the Met, 26 February 2007: my first exposure to a Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Renée Fleming.

Note to ROH: must try harder, 9 September 2008: Don Giovanni from Covent Garden, which was some way short of a triumph.

Is it live or is it television?, 24 November 2008: more from the Met on the cinema screen, this time Robert Lepage’s staging of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.

Phè-asco, 26 June 2009: a report of NT Live’s transmission of Phèdre from a seat in the Clapham Picturehouse.

Backstage with NT Live, 2 February 2010: a first post about the NESTA research, with background from NT Live’s David Sabel reviewing artistic, financial and rights issues.

Front-of-house with NT Live, 3 February 2010: more on the NESTA research, with some truly counter-intuitive findings.

Wondrous, wondrous Wagner, 11 October 2010: the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series offers Robert Lepage’s opening to the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold.

‘…the thought to the action’, 10 December 2010: a response to the NT Live’s transmission of Hamlet that fails entirely to be objective.

Met Opera live – five things I thought, 16 May 2011: ideas prompted by Die Walküre live from the Met.

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