THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Coronavirus lockdown has upended all our lives, and just as work meetings and family gatherings and birthday parties have now all migrated to Zoom (other platforms are available!) why not let theatre do the same?
A consortium of clever producers (American and UK) called The Remote Read have created a series of innovative live-streamed virtual plays. Unlike most of the streamed theatre events that are completely pre-recorded, such as NT Live, this project is completely live, run and stage managed as a live theatre performance via a ‘Zoom webinar’, with a full creative and production team led by director Sam Yates. A new frontier for live theatre, at a stroke it creates new digital versions of traditional stage jobs for all those developing, producing and performing the piece remotely across each of the cast members’ homes.
A unique aspect of this production was that it was truly a one-off and it won’t be made available online. The audience paid £10 solo or £20 per household to attend and after that it’s gone forever. This goes against the grain of current efforts to rake in lost revenue and I’m not sure this aspect will survive.
Those familiar with Zoom will know that ‘Speaker’ mode shows only the person speaking on screen while ‘Gallery’ mode shows all participants. It presents the (in this case five) cast members in equally sized screens depending on how many are in a scene. They react as if they are sharing a physical space and disappear when they are ‘off’.
Those who are enjoying checking out people’s living rooms via Zoom will be disappointed. You won’t see David Morrissey’s wallpaper or Denise Gough’s bookshelves. Here, the frame is standardised with white backgrounds behind everyone and the actors are all dressed in black. Mercifully, the sound levels are carefully balanced. Because it is not possible to take away and add screens without exposing the technology, all the cameras are live throughout. Actors can walk in and out of frame. The only visual change is a painting by the lead character which appears behind him. There are also wonderfully subtle music cues throughout.
The most important element is that, just as in a theatre, we know that the action in front of us is happening, and will only happen, now.
All the actors were “off the book” save for David Morrissey who glanced downwards for his lines like a rookie politician who had forgotten his glasses.
But enough about form, what about content? The piece is a 30 minute television drama which Stoppard did in 1964. It is set in a nursing home, giving it a topical edge, but this is one you’d want to stay in, proving that the past truly is another country.
Morrissey plays Brown, a well-off middle-aged man, who shows up at a private nursing home in the middle of the night asking to be admitted. He has a briefcase full of cash and so can pay easily, the only problem is he is perfectly healthy.
The Nurse (Maggie Service) fails to shrug him off and the smooth running of the home is disrupted. We witness his interactions with the Matron (Ed Stoppard), the Doctor (Denise Gough) and a young nurse (Jenna Coleman) who eventually takes a shine to him. They try to find out his backstory in the hope they can get rid of him.
This format is indeed a curious test of good actors. They need to pack so much into a small space, literally a frame, and voices are crucial. Morrissey’s star charisma is a perfect fit for Brown’s avuncular charm and Denise Gough makes the doubting doctor both seductive and assertive. Jenna Coleman’s natural warmth is great, too, for the rather smitten nurse.
Although it is an early piece, the Stoppardian hallmarks are already present and correct – the easy wit, the playfulness with language and a rather enigmatic undertone. Pinter’s influence is strong.
Stoppard explores here why we feel so uncomfortable about people who want to do nothing, even when they can afford it. Today, as the more fortunate of us are forced into temporary idleness, this dares to ask what is so wrong with that? All Brown wants is “clean laundry and meals coming in at the appointed time”. Intriguingly he talks about being happiest when taken prisoner during the war.
The whole project certainly succeeds. It opens a whole new approach to theatre-making and theatre-watching and, being online, it is instantly international.
The funds raised for it went to The Felix Project, a charity which provides volunteers to redistribute surplus food from suppliers to other charities and schools.
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