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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis