Live Ballet and Theatre – At a cinema near you!

Over the course of the past year there has been a surge in world class theatre, ballet and opera companies, even art galleries, screening their performances, either live or pre-recorded. I was initially sceptical about this as there’s always something magical about going to a theatre and watching things live within their own settings with an audience buzzing around you and being able to take in all the action. My initial thought to cinema screenings was whether the atmosphere would be much flatter and how I’d react to my eye being specifically drawn in a particular direction. It’s barmy when you think about those worries, as we all at some point sit down to watch live ceremonies and sports competitions on our TV.

And it was barmy.

Call me a convert.

The first screening I attended was the Royal Ballet’s live broadcast of Swan Lake from the Royal Opera House. Now I never had ballet lessons as a child and the only ballet I’d ever seen was The Snowman when I was about 10 and somehow I don’t think that counts as I can’t actually remember any of it. So this really was my first proper experience of ballet. I have to be honest, it took me a while to get the hang of it and settle into the performance as I found it bizarre going into a performance that didn’t have any dialogue. And yes, I do know that sounds daft, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that. The performance actually started with an introduction by Darcey Bussell. This was actually a really nice touch as it allowed people to see some of the cast before the opening act and to be introduced to the work. There were also interviews with cast members and the production team throughout the intervals. If you’re interested in seeing any of those interviews they are on the Royal Opera House youtube page. Go and check them out because they are really interesting, give you a different perspective on the work and an insight into the workings of a professional ballet.

Although I’m definitely no expert on ballet, what I will say is that the power and agility of the dancers is very evident over the big screen, particularly Natalia Osipova whose poise and elegance is just insane. It’s hard not to appreciate the physicality of the double swan role as Odette and Odile, despite how easy it’s made to look. It’s great to see close up shots and different perspectives that really help to keep track of the narrative, if you’re a novice like me, as well as seeing all the nuances which you wouldn’t be able to sat at the back of the Royal Opera House.

Another aspect that I hadn’t counted on was the immediacy of the audience feedback through social media, something that the screening itself promoted. The moment the intervals started many people turned to their phones to see what was happening on twitter and #ROHswanlake actually trended worldwide. It’s phenomenal that we’re now able to connect on such a huge scale with such immediate effect.

For me this was a great way to be introduced to ballet and makes performances like this much more accessible. At £17 the tickets were high for a cinema, but much more affordable than booking at the Royal Opera House and adding in travel into London. If you’re looking for an introduction to ballet, or simply can’t make the trip to see it, then the cinema is the perfect alternative.

The following week I was back on more familiar territory as I went to see Maxine Peake as Hamlet, a pre-recorded performance from the Manchester Royal Exchange. The cinema screening worked particularly well for this work as it was set in the round, allowing the cinema audience the luxury of all angles. Once again it was a pretty full audience who probably enjoyed the fact that they had more leg room than in most theatres… although I really didn’t appreciate the person who took 10 hours to unwrap the crinkliest wrapped sweet on earth.

The actual performance was incredible with a stellarHamlet quote cast. Maxine Peake plays a very young Hamlet, stark and brutal, but with a sharp wit. The performance is edgy and plays off the cast very well, seeming alienated from all, except from maybe Thomas Arnold as Horatio, a relationship I think works very naturally. I also enjoyed Katie West’s performance as Ophelia, wounded and innocent, devastated by the loss of her (in this production) mother, dissolving into a very distressing madness scene. The only cast member I felt disappointed in was Ashley Zhangazha as Laertes. For me he never seemed to quite settle into the role, seeming almost too wild. However I thought the ensemble as a whole was great, focussing wholly on Hamlet’s revenge. Once again I thought this work translated well onto the screen, except for one very odd slow motion moment, a liberty from the editor that did little and seemed out of place.

You can now count me an advocate for screening theatre. I think it’s another route into live performance and is very accessible. There is such a great range of work being screened that anyone can find something they will enjoy. Over the summer there will be screenings of National Theatre’s Everyman starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, English National Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Merchant of Venice to name but a few. So have a look, try something new, and see what you think.

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John presented by DV8 Physical Theatre

John is a new verbatim work by Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director or DV8 Physical Theatre, and follows the story of one man.

Hard-hitting, gritty, dark.

Through interviews with 50 men Lloyd Newson discussed love and sex, the risks and the sacrifices they were prepared to take. It was through this that John’s story was discovered and is now brought to life.

Rape, beatings, miscarriage, drug use, alcoholism, overdoses. And that’s just the first five minutes.

This is an extraordinary piece of work that is deeply unsettling and incredibly hard to watch, and yet you cannot tear your eyes away from the stage.

The staging itself is simple and yet suits perfectly the whole feeling of the play. First we see two rooms of John’s house as a child, sparsely dressed. The stage then rotates, revealing a corridor which then leads on the other side to another two rooms. For the first sequence the stage rotates constantly as John narrates his childhood and adolescence, walking between rooms into explicit scenes, both frozen and physical. You are immediately put on edge and the continuous motion does nothing to settle you, nor the music overlaid, a constant through the show that you barely notice, yet notice the absence of. Throughout the play the walls of the set are realigned to make new rooms, and at one point a maze, yet you don’t notice the changes at all as your eyes are always drawn to the characters onstage at any one time.

There is a synthesis between the movement and speech that is developed throughout, and cleverly draws your attention or serves to highlight particularly hard subjects and unique viewpoints, for example the unsteady and erratic actions of drug users are displayed through swaying, jolting falls into one another…

The story breaks the narrative of John’s story for a while when the gay sauna is established, introducing alternative viewpoints on the subject of love and sex. Here we are presented with an extremely open and honest discussion and varying opinions of addiction, sexual compulsion, the search for love and the risks that entails, including a candid interview about HIV. In one particular sequence the owners of the sauna describe the risks men take with one of them affirming that education about the risks is out there, but people choose to ignore it and risk their health, in the pursuit of intimacy in the case of another interviewee.

The physical theatre sequences were restrained throughout to specific moments, and this served to really bring out the serious issues and conflicting standpoints. The juxtaposition between movement and stillness throughout is a key tool. At one point one of the owners describes the search for sexual partners, the predatory nature of it. During this time the men walk between a maze of walls, on the periphery of your vision while he leans against a wall, a focal point in a constantly shifting tide. It is only when any of the men stop, confronting another, that your eye is drawn to them before they slip away again.

Add to this the very straight delivery of the words, taken from the interviews. It is very personal, and you cannot help but be drawn into the person’s world, in particular John, and it is to him that they finally return. One man, centre stage, speaking of his hopes and dreams for the future, trying to put aside the horrors of his past.

Whilst there are moments of comic relief, they are few and far between, although necessary. The intensity of the performances, particularly by the exquisite Hannes Langolf as John, submerge you in this explicit view into one man’s life, and the issues and trials he has, and continues, to face.

John is at the National Theatre (+16 years) until January but will also be broadcast on 9 December in cinemas (+18).