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03/08/2021

Richard II: Stage versus Screen = a comparison

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Last Wednesday saw David Tennant take to the stage and screen as Richard II in the first of a series of plays to be broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production ran in Stratford until the 9th of November but this week gave an opportunity for all those unfortunate enough not to get theatre tickets to see the show on screen.

The Regal Cinema in Evesham was one of many venues across the globe hosting the live showing. With the audience settling down into spacious plush red velvet chairs with food and drink served right to the seat, I could not help but make comparison with the tightly packed space I was seated in in Stratford.

Seating luxuries aside, I was still far from being won by the cinematic theatre experience. Having seen the live public understudy performance in Stratford I was eager to see Tenant in action, yet dubious as to how the gap between us, cosy in Evesham, and the RSC would be closed – if at all.

There were certainly bonuses to seeing the play at The Regal Cinema. The action was framed by documentary-style video clips detailing aspects of the set and play’s history. As the performance opened we were given a short commentary of the scene; it was as if we had our very own narrator. The interval was bridged by interviews with members of the cast and crew. We were given an exciting behind-the-scenes glimpse as the striking Jane Lapotaire, who played the Duchess of Gloucester, chatted to the camera right behind the curtains. Interestingly, this was proving a more informative and interactive way of watching the play.

The access to close-up views on a magician of expressions such as Tennant was undoubtedly a treat of the cinematic experience. Although the opening of the play involved tracking shots that were a little unnecessary for such a small stage, the lens became a valuable tool for us far-away audiences.

The camera work came into its own in scenes such as Bolinbroke’s usurpation of the throne. As Richard handed the crown unwillingly to Bolingbroke we were given an extreme close-up of the crown and the two men’s hands, a symbolic shot de-cluttered by its proximity to the object. At times it was also a slight hindrance, as characters left the stage one could not help but wish that you could watch their exit if desired, and our close proximity in one scene exaggerated a slight fumbling of lines. The overall benefit of detail when watching from afar, however, was an undeniable asset.

The gap closed between audience and Stratford by the camera work was left somewhat gaping by what was missed in set appreciation. The prison scene makes use of a fantastic trap door, opening to reveal Richard dishevelled and chained. When in the theatre the sight of half the stage opening up made many a hair stand on end – on screen it merely blurred into the darkness of the background and the effect was sadly lost.

There is something about being close enough to feel the spit of an actor as he breathes “such is the breath of Kings” that makes the experience of live theatre incomparable. The deal broker for me was the silence that ensued after the final haunting tableau. No hands sounded the ultimate call of audience appreciation, the only distant clapping coming from the Stratford audience. I, a lone clapper, was saddened by the sense of self awareness that chained those around me, unsure whether the usual procedures of the theatre applied to such an alien setting.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, the live viewing was the best alternative for a non-ticket holder, and a strong competitor for the real thing. As Tennant leaped onto the stage for his second round of applause the camera struck once more. Zooming in towards his face we see an expression of true self-deprecation towards a role he so magnificently plays, unperturbed even by the thought of so many unseen eyes watching him.

Source: Jessica Broadbent

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