Seeing the live National Theatre broadcast of Coriolanus last Thursday brought home once again how we’re all glued to screens now: our eyes rarely far from and seemingly hypnotized by the lure of the light emanating from our phones, tablets, computers and TV’s. But the screen that has always meant most to me – a big one with a movie projected onto it– is decreasing in significance, at least socially. Arguably, movies are better than ever. But we watch them through many outlets other than the cinema – computers, TV, DVD — and when we go to the pictures it’s not always movies we go to watch.
What ‘cinema’ is, where we see it and how we see it is all in flux. Theatre, ballet, opera — even boxing — are only some of the events we can now see as live transmissions onto big screens at cinemas. The picture-houses themselves are evolving to meet the different functions they’re required to fulfill in order to survive. The Electric in Birmingham is now the type of trendy venue where people pay premium prices for the privilege of sinking into big leather sofas to drink in their art with their cocktails. I tried to get tickets for Coriolanus there but they were sold out.
I was luckier at Cineworld because Corolianus was showing on two different screens. Of course, I could have waited to see it on DVD later but it would have lost the dimension of ‘liveness’, the size of the screen would have shrunk, and it would have meant wresting control of ‘time’ from the show’s makers: on DVD, I could pause at any time, make myself a cup of coffee and possibly wreck all the filmmakers’ carefully considered attempts to realise effects that rely on suspense, timing, rhythm.
But what are we watching when we see Corolianus at the ‘pictures’? It’s for sure we’re not watching a movie. There was no evidence of the care with choice of camera angle, camera movement, design, décor and editing that would have gone into conceptualising Corolianus as a movie, evidence clearly visible in, say, Ralph Fiennes 2011 film version. During the live transmission there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for camera set-ups or movement except following the actors. Even the focus on some of the close-ups was poor; and for cinema, that’s as basic as it gets.
It was also clear that the actors had not designed their performances for a big screen. The pitch of their voices and the size of their gestures were aimed at the audience in the Donmar Warehouse, which however cozy in relation to other theatres, is not as intimate as a close-up. The actors’ movements seemed too outsized and their speaking seemed oddly stylized on a big screen. Though I loved some of the performances (Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findley’s Voumnia were particularly memorable), they weren’t designed for the big screen.
If the Coriolanus I saw was not a movie it was also not live theatre. The staging seemed marvelously inventive for theatre but pretty ‘blah’ for the movies, or at least so I deduced from what I could see. For example, one can imagine how the fight sequence must have been thrilling on stage but here it just seemed like a phony, rather well-choreographed little tumble. Tom Hiddleston’s shower and his being hung up near the end must have seemed equally dazzling theatrical moments at the Donmar but didn’t quite thrill through a lens. One could imagine the effects but one didn’t feel them. Moreover, in the cinema even a ‘live’ transmission does not convey presence and one also loses the ability one has in the theatre of letting the eye wonder, of picking and choosing where to lay the focus of one’s attention.
One of the reasons for these live transmissions is to see the great actors of the day perform in great plays old and new. That was the rationale for the old BBC ‘Play of the Month’, which ran from 1965-1983 (Janet Suzman and John Gielgud in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan from 1968 is but one example), or the series of filmed plays to be sold and screened at cinemas that Ely Landau produced from the 1960s onwards, two of them starring Katharine Hepburn: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973).
What these live transmissions offer that is new and valuable is the combination of a large screen, a communal and social viewing experience, and the sense of occasion that attends to the ‘liveness’ of the transmission; although these events are recorded and sometimes shown in cinemas later, whenever there seems to be a demand for it (the NT’s production of Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played in cinemas long after it ceased its run at the National).
Though I find nothing as boring as seeing ballet on television, I love seeing live broadcasts of ballet on a big screen. Size really does reveal the athleticism and control of the dancers in a way that is impossible on TV or sometimes even on stage. Seeing Sergei Polunin in a live transmission of the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty was for me an unforgettable experience, one I’d not had in a theatre for a long time. But I’ve still to experience anything remotely close to that when watching a play broadcast at the cinema.
I enjoyed Coriolanus. The language is glorious. It felt it a privilege to be able to see Tom Hiddleston so close up, to see how Mark Gatiss’ Melenius compares to his Mycroft, to evaluate how Brigitte Hjort Sørensen, the lovely Danish reporter from Borgen, spoke Shakespeare. The live transmission is not a replacement for theatre and it’s not a replacement for cinema as we knew it. It is however an addition to an audio-visual ecosystem that is helping to transform and redefine the visual culture that we live in.
Seen Thursday, 30th January at Cineworld Cinemas, Birmingham
A Shorter version of this was published in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/screening-shakespeare-coriolanus-doesnt-captivate-at-the-multiplex-22682