These are bad times for theatres, theatregoers, companies and performers. Playhouses are closed, festivals are cancelled, productions are postponed to 2021 – provided that the venues and companies survive until then. While some countries have made money available for the arts, to cover loss of income, it’s clearly not on top of any list of priorities, and likely it isn’t even on most people’s radar. Certainly it doesn’t help that artists, actors, directors, musicians, writers, and so on, are rarely sitting on a big, comfortable pile of money for a rainy day, and they know as much as the essential workers that applause has never fed a hungry mouth or paid for the rent.
Some of the bigger theatres are offering access to recordings of notable productions, via YouTube, Vimeo and other platforms, to stay in the public’s eye and ideally raise some funds. One of these is the UK’s National Theatre, the grand old venue on London’s South Bank. We’ve taken the opportunity to watch two of the performances they’ve made accessible for free on YouTube under the moniker National Theatre at home, namely Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Frankenstein (which had the Duelling Sherlocks, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternating the roles of Frankenstein and his creation nightly – we saw the version where Cumberbatch played the creature) and the 2018 production of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the title characters.
I remember being interested in Frankenstein at the time, but for one reason or another we didn’t make it to London to catch it, and I always have time for actors of Okonedo and Fiennes’ stature. When it comes to theatre, I like a big, spectacular, traditional production as much as a smaller, more intimate one, provided they’re done well, with passion and a knack for interesting staging. Nonetheless, I liked but didn’t exactly love Frankenstein, and I found it very difficult at times to enjoy Antony & Cleopatra. The production was often visually arresting, but while the acting style may have worked well live, with the actors addressing an audience of hundreds in a large auditorium, on a TV screen streaming from YouTube it rarely clicked for me. In fact, much of it felt overblown and overly declamatory, with little in the way of introspection or otherwise quiet moments.
Most of all, it simply didn’t feel like I was made a part of the audience – which may sound weird, but bear with me. While I’m sure the cameras were planned in from the beginning, the production by Simon Godwin was exactly what you’d expect: a stage production. The actors played to, and for, the people sitting there in the venue, they used their voices to fill that space. The cameras documented the performances, but they were not addressed, they were not made part of the audience – and perhaps they couldn’t be, without both audiences losing something in the process. This is by no means a criticism of the production; I have little to criticise directly, because I don’t feel that I have really seen it. Film and TV work differently from theatre, and watching a live stage performance captured on camera rarely does anyone any favours. It felt like watching something at a distance, meant to be seen by someone else. I felt oddly unseen. (Ironically, I got more of a theatre buzz when we watched the 14-minute National Theatre quiz streamed on YouTube, in which Helen Mirren, Lenny Henry, Lesley Manville and Ian McKellen recorded quiz questions from the privacy of their own homes.)
By comparison, this is the time of year when the theatre festival Auawirleben should have taken place and when we should have been going to various local performances. Due to the dreaded C word (no, the other dreaded C word!), the 2020 instalment of Auawirleben was cancelled at the end of March – but then, less than a month later, the festival team announced that “aua comes your way”, that they’d be bringing the performances and performers to us in various ways. Since the beginning of the virtual festival, we’ve seen performances both live and recorded, read short stories, followed Zoom discussions, opened and read handwritten letters, talked to performers, spilled glitter and corn kernels all over our living room floor. It wasn’t always without friction or allowances for the change in medium, but in essential ways it was all alive, which the National Theatre recordings often didn’t feel like to me. I felt I was being spoken to, I felt like I was being made part of that intimate connection between performers and audience, whether I was watching short YouTube clips or an entire performed reading (in front of a fireplace complete with crackling fire – how cool is that?), reading letters and poems or watching MP4 videos off of a USB stick we’d been sent in the mail a day earlier.
It felt like theatre.
So, without knocking the achievements of the National Theatre: yes, their recordings are an opportunity to see productions that most haven’t been able to see live, but they are something of a consolation price. This is a technically competent but oddly lacking, pale reflection of the real thing. The individually wrapped parcels of theatre of all sorts we’ve been receiving from the Auawirleben team: they’re a great way of getting a daily dose of art at home. They’re providing an essential service, and for that they deserve our ongoing support – and our applause.
Aua comes your way is continuing for another week, and you can get glimpses and snippets at the Auawirleben website (which is also where I grabbed the pictures for this post). A great, big thank-you to BERLIN, Luanda Casella, Mart Kangro, La tristura, Silke Huysmans & Hannes Dereere/CAMPO, fABULEUS & GRIP / Jan Martens, Samara Hersch, anyone we haven’t seen, heard or read (yet) – and obviously to the best team any theatre festival could ever wish for!