Sunday, June 2, 2013

Film for Theatre: Henry V and Jesus Christ Superstar

Over the weekend I attended two performances: a screening of Shakespeare's Globe's Henry V at Cinema Paradiso and Jesus Christ Superstar at Perth Arena.

Both were impressive in their own ways, but due to prior familiarity alone I was always going to get more out of Henry V. It is a genuinely fantastic production, and Jamie Parker is exquisite as the king. I was quite ready to go to war with France, and the wooing scene with Katherine (Olivia Ross) is sweet and genuinely funny. If you have the slightest chance, go see it. (And, because it will eventually be released on DVD, you won't have any excuse not to.)

My intention isn't to actually review either performance, but to jot down some observations about the way film and theatre interlink in the two. No grand conclusions, just thoughts.

Although Henry V is a filmed play, its several camera angles and close-ups allow for the kinds of cuts we tend to expect from cinema. I don't know how well the live audience would have seen some of the subtler expressions, or to what extent the actors' delivery may have been moderated with the knowledge of the attending film cameras, but in any case the production worked well on screen.

There is a particular battle scene, though, that is exceptionally 'cinematic'. In one sequence Henry and his lords fight in slow motion. It makes perfect action film logic, and in some peculiar way makes the battle on stage seem more realistic. For most people the only scenes of battle we know are from the movies, and we know to expect a slow motion depiction of the hero(es) in full swing: it lets us appreciate the choreography of the battle in more detail, we get to linger on the focus, pain and emotion on the protagonists' faces. Henry V isn't just a play filmed - it's a play that borrows from cinematic conventions.

In Jesus Christ Superstar the cinematic aspects are made part of the live performance more literally by virtue of the massive screen - necessary because it would be utterly impossible for the fifteen thousand people in attendance to otherwise follow anything on stage. Aware of the necessity of the screen, the production makes use of it so that the screen isn't there just to bring the action closer to people who are far away, but to support the narrative in a way that means that even if you are in the front row, you need to keep an eye on the screen tor really see what's going on (pros and cons, obviously). There are roving camera operators on stage, so the screen brings the audience into he middle of the action and right alongside the performers. As the cameras invariably catch a glimpse of the screen, some parts of the play are mise en abîme in feedback loops that are sometimes used for clever effect, for example to morph the actors on stage into masses and masses of followers.

The cameras are also used to frame scenes in 'cinematic' ways: for example, when Judas is offered payment for turning Jesus in, he turns and walks away before hesitating. On stage Caiaphas holds out the offering while Judas stands some way away facing the back of the stage. On the screen, however, the bag of money is framed in close up against Judas' back, condensing the scene into that one image.

In fairness, 'cinematic' is the wrong word to describe the influences of Jesus Christ Superstar - the news reports and the game show sequence ("Hark! with Herod") already proclaim links with television. In any case, I find the way screen media is present on stage, whether as a literal storytelling element or as a stylistic influence, extraordinarily fascinating. I think I need to start going to the theatre more...

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