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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle