Theatre is in a peculiar position at this given moment in time. For a start, there are stripped funds on all fronts, and the stage is being hit hard. Already such schemes as ‘A Night Less Ordinary’, providing theatre tickets to young people, has an end date of March 2011, and much more of the blow is still to come, threatening to make theatre ever more inaccessible.
Beyond economic issues, there also remains the more permanent effect of film and recording: television, cinema, and the internet can provide instant, cheap or free broadcasts of plays. Live performances are therefore left in a shaky position.
York Theatre Royal is tackling both issues head on with a rehearsed reading of ‘King Lear’ that was recorded live in front of an audience on their main stage. The performance served to raise money for their Access for All charity, widening accessibility by installing disabled access into the rehearsal rooms. Equally, the venture combining media meant that they are not getting left behind by society’s increased attachment to broadcast drama.
Damian Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal maintains, “it’s about being appropriate. There are so many platforms now to listen to and watch material on, but I think stage struggles to be a television broadcast because it’s not been made for that; it’s hard for that to feel compelling.”
“The platforms are great for letting people know that something is happening, so it’s great as an advertising media. They’re also great to have a discussion with your audience. Here, we do Q&A after performances, and obviously we can’t have one after every performance, so if people can’t make a certain one we do it as a live Skype, so you can tune in and listen to it.”
It’s something they haven’t tried before though: “Not in my time here anyway. What we do here is that every show is transmitted live to hospital radio.”
For Cruden, despite ever advancing technology, broadcast media and theatre are not interchangeable, or directly related. It is something that must be creatively manoeuvred. “When I direct a play, I don’t direct it for camera. You do it differently and you perform it differently.
“Also, I think people’s expectations of the television media has a lot to do with wanting to watch a sense of naturalism. So it’s not about an imaginative engagement in terms of reconstructing the environment of the narrative, which of course theatre asks you to do, and in some way, shape, or form you have to imagine what was there.”
“There is something about the ability for people to edit things out and get out all the mistakes and so on and make it clean and tidy, that makes it a more managed process, which you can’t do when you’re live.
“The work becomes more managed and more refined I suppose, but in many ways that takes away from the pleasure that we get out of watching a live performance which is that you know it’s a unique moment in time that you are engaged with and once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s not something that you get again. And also that you have a participatory role inside that process, in making it happen, that makes it very different from watching something on TV.”
Consequently, Cruden is dubious on the topic of the National Theatre’s NT Live broadcasts, and thinks hard before resolving, “well, it’s not as good fun as going, because it feels more like a documentation of something rather than actually what it’s meant to be.
“The danger as well, if we go down that route, ultimately is that a company like the National should actually be in the regions, not just think that it’s doing its job by broadcasting to them. I think there is a danger that it dilutes the nature of what live performance ought to be and what people get out of it, to being a screened performance of something.”
Utilising technology in a different way, Cruden became involved in the King Lear project engineered by actors Freddie Jones and George Costigan, and BBC Drama Director Polly Thomas.
The performance was not, in fact, systematically planned. “George Costigan had been working with Freddie Jones on Emmerdale and they’d had conversations about parts they’d played, parts they would like to play, and the idea came from there. I said “why don’t you record at the York Theatre Royal, live, in front of a live audience, and whilst were doing it we can make some funds for the De Grey rooms [a space containing a ballroom, cocktail bar and oakroom] and the disabled access into the ballroom.” Everybody was very keen to come do that. All the actors are here free of charge, and it’s also a celebration of Freddie’s acting career. For any actor it’s the part, you ask anybody, not even Prospero. Lear. And Freddie Jones is perfect for it, absolutely perfect for it.”
“People will be watching it like a radio recording, which people used to do all the time, go and watch recordings of radio dramas and radio shows. People do still do it: the National’s broadcasts are live, and BBC Radio 4, and some Radio 3 shows.
“It’s not as prolific as it once was, there used to be a lot more spoken radio shows that were recorded live – all these comedy or sitcom shows – because that‘s what most people listened to. It was terribly popular.”
He is optimistic, however, about the reception. “It’ll be interesting to see what people make of a reading of it, but I do think that it’s such a potent piece of text that you will get something out of it.”
“It’s interesting, the relationship between aurally recorded work and theatre is quite close in a lot of ways, so there is a possibility that there is another string to our bow, as it were, and we can collaborate with people that make radio, or broadcast for the internet as well.
“And Shakespeare is a really interesting one. If you see a recorded stage version it’s not as good, but when you see it, it’s turned into a different life.”
Though spontaneously planned , it fits the bill of “being appropriate” between the old and the new: a classic Shakespeare, recorded live, to fund wider accessibility in the future.