Tag Archives: National Theatre

Oklahoma (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1955)

oklahoma poster

Oklahoma! is one of the great scores of American musical theatre but not the greatest of musical films: the two often get confused, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own South Pacific being the most obvious example (though it can be argued that even that isn’t Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s best work; the film, however, is dreadful).

The stage show, coming as it did in 1943, just after America’s entry into WWII, was thought, erroneously, to introduce American musical theatre to the integrated musical (Show Boat, produced in 1927 with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein came considerably earlier and has a greater claim to the honour).

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Bambi Linn as Dream Laurie and James Mitchell as Dream Curly

The Broadway show of Oklahoma did nonetheless revolutionise American musical theatre, showing as it did, how musical theatre was capable of bringing not only joy but also depth, seriousness, unity, and cutting edge inventiveness (with Agnes De Mille’s dream ballet in the show receiving particular praise for this. The dream ballet here inspired all the subsequent dream ballets in Hollywood musicals. So blame Agnes de Mille.). The show was thought so important it won a special Pulitzer Prize for literature to acknowledge its contributions. It was certainly influential, and from the mid-forties onwards, the integrated musical became the norm on Broadway.

The score is one of the great wonders of American musical theatre. Hearing the rising O’s in ‘Oklahoma!’ alone is enough to put a smile in my face. But the score also contains ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,’ The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, ‘Many a New Day’, ‘All er Nothing,’ and many more hits. It’s no exaggeration to say that it became the soundtrack of a generation throughout the forties and well into the fifties and is known to be a particular favourite of the Queen. The songs have been covered by pretty much all the great singers (from Sinatra and Lena Horne to Blossom Dearie) and are considered staples of ‘The Great American Songbook’.

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Too much of the dream ballet filmed so that you can’t actually see the dancers dancing.

Both the show and the film convey the way America liked to see itself in the middle of the last century: equal (‘I’m no better than anybody else but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good’), modern (‘everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as far as they can go’), inclusive (Persian peddlers marry in, cowboys and farmers end up friends, a territory becomes a state), with a cornfed energy and open-air sexual innocence (‘People Will Say We’re in Love’) that often enveloped or was a front to more exciting things (‘I’m just a girl who cain’t say no’). The tone throughout is one of homespun hickness layered in the common-sense toughness so prized by Americans.

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Many scenes are shot full-on frontal

But the film of Oklahoma! is a stately and ponderous affair, a dilemma for a show that’s got an exclamation point in its title. Zinnemann has no fun with this material. Everything is filmed to highlight the seriousness and importance. We get to see Curly (Gordon McRae) riding from a low angle amongst the corn so rendered majestic. Even Will Parker (Gene Nelson) jumping of a train onto a horse is rendered unexciting, from far away in a long take that emphasises the landscape rathe than the action. Many scenes are shot full-on frontal, in compositions that seem haphazard. And whilst songs are often shot in long takes from a fixed angle (see the clip below), Agnes De Mille’s great dream ballet is butchered so that sometimes all you see of the dancers is from the waist up. And often one notices how landscape is favoured over character, and though it is beautiful, and the show is meant to be about Oklahoma, it distances us from the characters.

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Too many abysmal compositions

The film was shot in two versions, the then new 70 mm Todd-AO process for select theatres and a CinemaScope 35mm version for wider distribution. They are in fact two different versions, made up of different takes. I saw the 35mm version, meant to be the weaker one, as the first takes where generally used for the Todd-AO version, and though the restored version is generally a handsome affair, some shots still look quite murky.

In spite of my reservations, there are many things I love about this version: It’s a treat to see James Mitchell, so important to Agnes De Mille’s work and indeed to the development of American dance, as the dream Curly actually dancing (unlike in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon where he merely plays Cyd Charisse’s Svengali choreographer); Shirley Jones had not yet learned to act but she’s got a delectable chocolate box prettyness; I love the tone of Gordon McRae’s voice even though his performance lacks the zest, energy and sex-appeal Hugh Jackman brought to the role of Curly in the Trevor Nunn production for the National Theatre in London (see above); Gene Nelson’s been thought one of the burdens poor Doris Day had to put up with in her Warners Days but I like his dim Will Parker very much.

These performers, though not quite of the top rank, are not the problem with the film. In fact, to me, Rod Steiger has never been better. He could be, in fact he usually was,  a terrible ham. But here he brings a broody, hulking presence to the role of Judd. And he’s so restrained throughout most of the film, that when he does explode, it becomes powerful and meaningful, rather than an annoying characteristic of his style of acting. Likewise, whilst there are other performances of Gloria Grahame that I like at least as much (I love her in everything I’ve seen her in really but particularly in Human Desire, The Big Heat, and In a Lonely Place) her Ado Annie — all stylised and pitched high but soft — is a joy,  as is her duet with Gene Nelson in ‘All ‘er Nothing’ (the former is from the 35mm CinemaScope print, the latter from the 70mm Todd-AO, for comparison)

From the 35mmm CinemaScope version

From the 70mm Todd-AO version

Fred Zinnemann has no feel for the homespun rural Americana the film idealises. His greatest hits (The Search, A Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, and even — famously —High Noon) and his dream project that got away (a film of Malraux’ Man’s Fate) are indicators of how distanced his sensibility is from this material. The main lacks are pace and energy, which in fact should be the very motor of this material.

My main reason for seeing this, however, was Gloria Grahame (I’m on a bit of a marathon of her films at the moment). She did not disappoint, and in fact the film brought an increased appreciation of her talents and  an increased understanding of why Rod Steiger once meant something as an actor. Plus the score is an undiluted joy in any version.

 

José Arroyo

 

Corolianus, NT Live Transmission

coriolanus

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.

José Arroyo

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