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.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.