National Theatre live is no new phenomenon having launched in 2009 and I decided it was time to give it a go. I loved the book as a kid and now I had the opportunity to watch it in the West End, only I was at a cinema in Leeds. I was actually really excited having booked the tickets well in advance, and sat down with an openly curious mind, almost as curious as Christopher who is the autistic boy that sets out on an adventure of discovery in this well-told tale.
The play is extremely well told and remarkably constructed for the stage. Light and sound being as much a star as Luke Treadaway who earned himself a Laurence Olivia award in 2013 for the role of Christopher. The stage is constructed with a grand and open rectangular floor space that is designed to light up in various gridded structures to create anything from tubes to house blocks. It is an abstract design that would collapse without the innovative and blaring sound design, the racketing of the tube and the experimental use of static to implement Christopher’s state of mind. Explosions of numbers are also projected onto the floor as Christopher solves his mathematical problems. He does so rapidly, and Luke is tremendous in his ability to utter such convolutions that his character demands. It is touching the way he dearly and passionately talks about largely insignificant things, trivial to the context in which they are uttered. It certainly enlightens the beauty with which autistic individuals view the world, be it a mysterious light at the end of a tunnel.
So, what a great play. And, therein lies a fundamental problem; you spend the entire time longing to be in the audience taking in the atmosphere that it is the spatial beauty of the theatre. I will now offer some insights into my experiences sat behind a great canvas that felt like a thick brick wall between myself and the other side (200 Miles down the M1). As my experience of theatre is limited, though I have certainly experienced its splendor, I cannot comment so wisely in comparison to the cinematic screen end of the spectrum. I can only observe my frustration of being sat in a movie theatre and watching a play when I would rather be at the play or sat were I was watching a movie instead. Hypocritical indeed, as I was well aware what my ticket entitled me too!
Nevertheless, my thesis that one wishes to be on the other side (at the theatre) and/or simply watching a movie caused me endless complication as I tried to enjoy what was a fantastic theatrical production, but one that my mind wouldn’t allow. Or, rather the aesthetic hashing of the ordeal is a disgrace for the felt spectator. You need to liberate your mind in order to gain full satisfaction and insight into a piece of art, if you are concerned with factors external to the authenticity of the work, your engagement and experience is duly lost or spoilt by a rigged surface. Such is live theatre and there are a number of explanations (although some are inexplicable) that led to this disruption.
Lets begin with the consequences of the silver screen. The aesthetic of a theatrical experience is of course completely diminished by the latter. The screen acts as a protest to the production; it allows some of it to be shown and that which is shown is inanely reproduced to destroy all reality. What I mean is that the language of cinema is used to represent the theatre and those consequences are fatal. The syntax of the shot, for starters, tries to replicate a well-constructed classical form of film montage. Christopher is shown in a close-up, a reverse mid-shot, a top shot, but never a real wide shot. By real, I mean a wide shot that encompasses the whole stage, a shot that would allow the closest form of resemblance to the theatre. Such a shot is completely disregarded, until the very end when we finally acquire a glimpse of the auditorium and realise how we have just spent two hours not experiencing the theatre at all, but something completely different, perhaps it appears as a film rehearsal might. The empty stage, the actors overacting to find their nuances, the long takes and self-effacing camera angles; it is by no means a film rehearsal but certainly more so than a theatrical experience. The theatre has its own language, with the drama and the stage; it is not infatuated with the décor and montage of the cinema; all the latter is killed with live theatre.
What is shown is a frame filled with shadows of the audiences’ heads, distant cameraman and their chunky lenses and, of course, our noble stage actors. In fact, at one point, the cutting these frames made me feel dizzy and have to retract from the screen altogether; it was a rather claustrophobic experience; perhaps induced by not being able to breath along with the real audience. Of course, seeing stage actors project themselves onto a screen is trivial, dishonest and alarmingly awkward. Much of the acting feels like bad acting and rightly so, the camera cannot allude the stage and it certainly cannot attribute the features of stage acting. There are psychological layers to acting, and the screen, so sensitive to the latter, will destroy the stage actor’s aura and, ultimately, their performance.
The camera is a nail for details, it picks out the skin tones and the rest of the meticulous features of its frame, the theatre doesn’t, it doesn’t need to. The cinema therefore dismantles the theatre production before our very own eyes; there is no mise-en-scene but a few actors and their seamless correspondence on the stage as the story moves from one location to the next. Even this well executed and seamless interaction of stage maneuvers is dismantled, as the camera disturbs this reality, it picks out what it wants to see. In other words, the only way to experience something close to the theatre would be a distinctive wide shot with a deep focus, and no consecutive montage. For this would allow our eyes to rest and scope the auditorium as an active theatre audience does, the opposite to a passive cinema audience. For example, the camera is focused on Christopher and his emotion changes in response to the characters on the opposite side of the stage, yet we do not see there emotions, they are hidden. Such are the powerful tools of a film director, but this is not a film and the theatre need not experiment, or be able to experiment, with such tools. The cinema screen enlightens the opportunity and shatters it in its very essence.
One could write a dissertation on the aesthetics and ontologies presented through such a mish-mash of art exhibition. But, I will save this for another day and conclude this blog post by saying that you should never, if not just to experience, go to see NT live. That is to say that if you care about the foundations of the theatre and the cinema then you will be lugged to hell and back trying to watch a live performance and experience it without scratching your brain every couple of minutes. If you are able to simply sit back and idly watch an execution of art, then let me know.