Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From Page to Stage to Screen


The thought of watching a filmed play is enough to make even the hardiest theatregoer flee screaming down the aisle. Recording the stage has a poor history, causing even the nimblest staging to seem thudding and deep performances transparent. But that was before Digital Theatre came along.

The Old Vic's Kafka's Monkey at   Digital TheatreSet up in late 2008 by theatre director Robert Delamere (Julius Caesar at the Manchester Royal Exchange, The Crucible at the Sheffield Crucible, among many others) and TV and radio producer Thomas Shaw, Digital Theatre films plays in front of their audience, edits them and offers them for download for £8.99, far less than a ticket would cost (let alone an entire evening out in town).

So far they have the Royal Court’s Over There, English Touring Theatre’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the Old Vic’s Container and Kafka’s Monkey (above: Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey), and the Almeida’s Parlour Song. It is an iTunes of the proscenium.

Delamere says the idea stemmed from surprise that no-one had tried to film plays in a sophisticated, unobtrusive, realistic way: “Surely given the advances in technology there might be a way of not having big, burly cameramen sitting in an auditorium taking up seats? And [we wanted to avoid] a static, completely neutral filming, which is what people have seen for years and which doesn’t accord with anyone’s idea of film language.

He has previously cited Newsnight Review as a culprit in this regard, with its lifeless clips. The National Theatre has, of course, in the past year filmed three of its shows and broadcast them to cinemas around the country, with varying degrees of success.

“Everyone said at the beginning, ‘Hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle, hurdle’,” recalls Delamere. “Can you aesthetically do it, can you do it practically, can you not disrupt the performances, what about the rights and legal scenarios? There’s a mountain to climb even to get to the point where you start filming.”

After negotiations with the relevant unions and licensing authorities, and £1 million of private investment, Digital Theatre launched its first play, Madding Crowd, at the end of last October, and is now in the final stages of producing its sixth.

With anywhere between five and 13 cameras fixed around and above the stage, controlled from an external production unit, and two performances of each show filmed, there are hours of material to sift through before a final edit can be made. This turns out to be a collaboration between Digital Theatre and the original creatives, Shaw says, “Since Rob’s been a director before, you’re able to have a sensitivity which goes a long way.”

But rather than just relying on their own taste, skill and intuition, they work closely with directors, lighting designers and sound designers so they can “follow the intention of the original production itself,” says Delamere. Not that that is without its problems, according to Delamere. “With people who are working strictly within that discipline of theatre, their understanding of film technique or language can sometimes not be as high.”

That captures one of the artistic paradoxes of Digital Theatre: is a filmed and edited play still a play, or some chimerical new genre? If you take a purist’s view, you should not need to understand the language of film: theatre does not work on zoom shots or rapid editing, should not direct the eye second-by-second.

Indeed, the idea of stitching together the best of two performances to make one film could be downright untheatrical. You expect, on any particular night of a play, unified yet unique performances, varying according to the actors’ moods and developing by experimentation, and so merging two separate ones for any one actor is philosophically difficult. Theatre is not Meryl Streep’s best laugh from 15 takes.

Delamere counters this with “the practical recognition” that sometimes actors make mistakes which they’d prefer not go down to posterity, and Shaw says, “In the edit, we do use one [performance] mainly.”

The Almeida's Parlour Song at  Digital TheatreBut this difficulty is far outweighed by the end product and what it allows. The film of Kafka’s Monkey moves in rhythm with the performance, gently panning up as Kathryn Hunter tenderly reaches up to the monkey projected at the back of the stage. The Container is claustrophobic and dark as the illegal immigrants panic and argue in their enclosed space. And Parlour Song (picture left) even makes you forget you are watching theatre, so natural are its shots.

Madding Crowd, different from the others in its larger cast and more expansive set, has perhaps too many cuts from one camera to another: just because there are more people to focus on does not mean you have to shift so quickly between them; theatre is rarely that frantic. Further Digital Theatre productions will lead to greater sophistication in this respect.

Given the global marketplace Digital Theatre finds itself in, it is no surprise when Delamere says, “We’re in 106 countries now, and we get these great emails from African schoolteachers going, ‘The idea that I could possibly get my children to watch a British theatre production is beyond imagining and now it’s a possibility.’” And closer to home, Digital Theatre is making these plays – by no means mainstream, frequently with brief runs – available to the rest of the country, which too often feels isolated from the giddy metropolitan world of the arts, and indeed to those who saw them the first time and would like to revisit them.

There are some plays that Delamere and Shaw concede will not work in this medium, although they gallantly don’t say which. What about the immersion-theatre of Punchdrunk, where the plot is almost incidental to the experience of their fully imagined world? Delamere ponders what it might be like: “You’d have to operate some sort of game theory, which would be to multi-record it. You could option what your experience was. You’d have 12 to 15 screens to decide where you were next. It would be amazing to set up a wall somewhere where you could do that.” It sounds like a perfect replication of the Punchdrunk mode, surrounding you with the show.

From intimate chamberpieces to full-blown epics and even 360º installation-events, it seems as if there are few theatrical productions Digital Theatre will not tackle. As their experience becomes greater and their name spreads further, their productions will become the exemplars of their genre and they may prove a durable exporter of a previously Britain-bound industry.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ana Mendieta, Alison Jacques Gallery


Still from Untitled (Creek #2), San Felipe, Mexico 1974
Still from Untitled (Creek #2), San Felipe, Mexico 1974
Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, courtesy of Gallerie Lelong and Alison Jacques Gallery

Works of art are usually quite easily recognisable: they’re in a frame, or on a pedestal, or (if it’s a particularly expensive one) there’s a security guard nearby. You’ll probably be in an art gallery or a smart private house too. But what about when the art is in the land? And moreover, when that art is almost too subtle to be noticed?

This is what confronts the viewer of Ana Mendieta’s work, on show at Alison Jacques Gallery in London. Cuban-born Mendieta (1948-85) made interventions in the landscape based around her own silhouette, such as pressing her hand into grass or arranging stones around her outline, and then took photographs. She also made videos of herself, lying naked underneath stones, hardly visible, in what looks like a quarry, or submerged in a Mexican creek.

Drawing on Mesoamerican traditions of the spirituality of the land, an anthropomorphised land, Mendieta affects nature by putting herself in it, almost as if she is willing that spirituality to enter her, or her to enter it. Her photos and videos, which seem almost bland at first, are thus quiet examinations of the relationship of man (and woman) and nature. She alters nature without doing so in an obvious or permanent or destructive way, and thus maintains an ancestral respect; contrast the “art” of Mount Rushmore and you’ll see what I mean.

By inserting herself into the landscape, and indeed with several photos of vaginal slashes in the earth, Mendieta is asserting the importance of the feminine in the natural world. Whereas most interventions are grand masculine statements, Mendieta’s play on her own womanhood makes her work that much more modest and affecting.

Mendieta_-_NanigoAnother important aspect of Mesoamerican culture is ritual, which motivates Mendieta’s performances. One of these was recreated at the private view last night, where guests lit black candles arranged around Mendieta’s silhouette and the candles were left to melt down. (Picture right is the original performance.)

This echoes a Cuban ritual from which Mendieta was excluded both by being a woman and an exile, her family thrown out of Cuba for opposing Castro. By being invited to light one of these candles, that is, become a participant in Mendieta’s ritual, it became a meditative experience, poignant and inclusive.

Thus far most famous for her death (her husband, artist Carl Andre, known best in England for Tate Modern’s arrangement of bricks called Equivalent VIII, was acquitted of her murder after she fell out of their 34th-floor apartment window), Mendieta is difficult because of how she draws on unfamiliar non-Western traditions of art and because of the low voice in which her art speaks. However, her conception of nature, and specifically woman’s place within it, is ultimately compelling and beautiful.

Ana Mendieta: Silueta and Silence is on at Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners St, from 19 February to 20 March

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cathedral of Shit knows the art world's secrets...

...and isn't afraid to tell them. The contemporary art world - filled with million-pound paintings, august institutions, competitive gallerists, rich collectors and so many egos - is never that good at keeping things quiet. There's always some advantage (or just glee) to be gained by spilling the beans, and the better your sources the more popular you'll be.

By that yardstick, Cathedral of Shit is the most beautiful girl at the dance. The anonymously-written blog is roiling the art scene with its Deep-Throat-like knowledge, and art parties now resemble McCarthy's inquiries: "Are you now or have you ever been a contributor to Cathedral of Shit?"

Someone is spilling secrets, about art PRs out of favour and gallerists out of luck, plus there is plenty of general mockery of art's nostrums and most celebrated figures (especially Damien Hirst). Why is the Armory art fair in New York having a rough time? Which PR was banned from Frieze this year? And what's going on with the ICA? Plus, it performs a public service in working out where the Arts Council has been wasting its money.

The finger has been pointed in several directions, including at this writer, and there are several likely suspects, but whoever it is is taking no prisoners.

Ironically, one thing is for certain: Cathedral of Shit has given the art world one more thing to gossip about.