The cast of 1984, which uses off-stage footage of Winston and Julia's secret tryst. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.
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1984: How theatre is learning from cinema by using live video

Cinema has never suffered from anxiety about the "unseen off-screen". Three new London plays, Good People, Let the Right One In and 1984, are adapting to new ways of presenting what is happening off-stage.

The most innovative and resonant aspect of the production of 1984 which has just transferred from the Almeida to the Playhouse Theatre is its use of a live video feed to relay off-stage action to the audience. Cinema has no trouble evoking a world that exists beyond the borders of the film frame. Tom Sutcliffe, in his book Watching, describes the moment when the vast spacecraft whooshes into view during the opening shot of Star Wars as the revelation of the “unseen off-screen”.

Most theatre struggles in my experience to conjure an equivalent sense of expanse. The revolving set in the current production of Good People (another transfer to the West End—from the Hampstead Theatre to the Noel Coward Theatre) does it nicely, suggesting the intrinsic link between disparate locations and creating a nice fluidity between them. The main performer (Imelda Staunton) exits through the doorway of one set and enters another during each revolution. It’s as though she is strolling through the pages of a pop-up book. And the stage adaptation of Let the Right One In (currently playing at the Apollo) uses its permanent set of silver birches that reach beyond the top of the proscenium and out of sight to evoke the enormity of the forest where some of the action takes place.

None of this generates quite the frisson of the video feed in 1984. It has a practical function within the story: it is used to follow what happens between Winston and Julia during their trysts in a back-room supposedly out of view of Big Brother. It also transforms us into voyeurs, perhaps even representatives of the Party. This idea is pushed to extremes in the torture sequence at the end of the play, when Winston screams out at us in the (now semi-lit) auditorium, imploring us to intervene.

It can be a risky move incorporating video into a theatre production; it sometimes feels to me rather as if a barista were to use instant coffee in the preparation of your morning Americano. (The feeling being: if I wanted it done that way, I could have stayed at home and whipped it up myself.) The videos featuring Tamsin Grieg and the late Roger Lloyd-Pack that bookended the electrifying production of The Trojan Women at the Gate at the end of 2012 were the weakest parts of that show, since they took us out of the bleak hospital room to which the rest of the play was confined. We may not have wished to be in that place of horror and torment, but neither did we want the hard-won claustrophobic atmosphere to be squandered once established.

There was an element of that anxiety when the use of video made its first appearance in 1984. We are left staring at a vacated set while a screen just above it reveals what is happening out of sight. It is only natural to wonder whether we are seeing a live broadcast or something pre-recorded. We are so suspicious in the post-Ant-and-Dec phone-in scandal era that we won’t take anything at face value; if Bear Grylls can stay in a hotel when we think he’s roughing it in the woods, what hope for authenticity in our entertainment world?

But once we are satisfied that we are witnessing live interaction between Winston and Julia, the use of video takes on an expansive power. We become gradually aware that the reach of the play extends beyond that which we can see on the stage or touch. The production is always cognisant of the breadth of Orwell’s novel: you can see that in the ingenious decision to dramatise within the play the novel’s appendix, so that we are actually privy to discussions of Winston’s writings that take place after the action of the text. The use of video makes that physical. It tells us implicitly that the meaning and significance of the play does not stop at the edge of the stage. It goes on.

1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until 19 July. Good People is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 14 June. Let the Right One In is at the Apollo Theatre until 27 September.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump