Film + Theater = Filmed Theater

I got my introduction to theater at the movies. There wasn’t much doing for us in Sydney, culture-wise, when I was in high school, apart from visiting the McConnell library and arguing the relative merits of Keith’s versus Moosehead beer. People watched a lot of television, but I didn’t enjoy sitting in a chair, gaping at a household appliance. However, I did take to the big screen and went to the movies about two or three times a month. In Sydney, in those primitive days, that was enough to brand you a movie fanatic, if not culturally pretentious. I kept it to myself that I actually followed certain directors, even if it was only Hollywood directors at first, mostly blood-and-guts guys like Brian De Palma and the twisted genius Sam Peckinpah, the best action director ever. The movies that stay with me the most, though, are the subsequently discovered “art films” of the fifties and sixties, by directors like Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu. My two all-time favorite movies remain Bergman’s “Winter Light” and Ozu’s “Late Spring.”

Tokyo Story, Ozu, 1953

Tokyo Story, Ozu, 1953

Before world cinema, however, I discovered literary theater through the subscription series American Film Theatre, which brought filmed plays to cinemas across North American in the mid-1970s. This doomed experiment to bring the best productions of the best playwrights to the world lasted only two seasons, brought down by public indifference and movie criticism snobbery. But American Film Theatre managed to give us some wonderful productions of plays as they were intended to be seen, and to do it cinematically. I’ll never forget sitting in an almost empty Vogue movie theater, experiencing the near-delirium of Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, its hilarious absurdist lines delivered deadpan by sinister characters always on the verbal attack (it was known as “the comedy of menace” I came to learn). Directed by Peter Hall, his definitive London stage production also became a film classic. Because of the American Film Theatre I saw plays by great writers like Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, and Eugene Ionesco performed by the most talented theater practitioners. (The 14 productions are now available on DVD.)

As with art in our world generally, the literary play is now somewhat in the doldrums, and the theater getting audiences and buzz is usually musicals and spectacle. And while I enjoy musicals and never miss, given the opportunity, the visual theater of directors like Robert Lapage and Robert Wilson, it’s still literary theater I love best, traditional drama by great writers with unique voices and something new to say.

Thankfully, something of the literary tradition in theater remains, even if the best work is revivals, and it is now being filmed more than ever. For example, since returning to Cape Breton, I’ve been attending some of the National Theatre Live shows at the Cineplex. These productions are broadcast by the Royal National Theatre from London venues. Because of the time difference,“live” for North America means “recorded before an audience,” and accounts for its inferiority to American Film Theatre, which shot plays like movies—that is, free of audience restraints. They didn’t just prop a camera or two in front of the stage and record but, while remaining faithful to the original stage production, allowed the camera to move as freely as it does in any movie.

Michael Jayston, Ian Holm, Cyril Cusak and Paul Rogers, The Homecoming, American Film Theatre, 1973

Still, National Theatre Live provides an opportunity to check out what the best theater artists are up to these days. Recent productions have included the newest work of brilliant playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh, and David Hare. The most celebrated international director today, Belgium’s Ivo van Hove, had a hit with his Young Vic production of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” probably the outstanding production of last year’s schedule. Coming up this month on Saturday the 14th at 12:30 p.m. is an “Encore” showing of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.” It was a well-received production starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. (Sound quality and scheduling not guaranteed, going by past experience.)

In the past, movie critics heartily disliked filmed plays because they weren’t cinematic, and, I believe, because they had a secret fear that movies aren’t really art. Heresy nowadays, but there is something mind-numbing about movies if you see too many of them. I always thought this was so even in the case of that now-extinct breed, the intelligent film critic, like Pauline Kael or John Simon, who ended up as trivial-minded bores, battling to the death over the merits of some summer blockbuster like The Return of Amazingman II or similar stuff we all enjoyed when we were 12. They were like drug addicts, chasing the dragon of their youthful joy at the movies, their minds adolescent from repeated cinematic exposure. They failed to realize the moment had passed. The often-noted similarity of movie-goers to the inhabitants of Plato’s Cave, deceived of substance by shadows and light, should be taken as a cautionary tale.

Yet the film critics had a point. Film and theater are two different things, and filmed plays are actually very misleading and unfair to the play. Plays are meant to be performed live on stage. Film can give a bit of the flavor of the production, and even do some extra things, like showing close-ups of the actors’ faces. But they always miss out on what makes theater theater, the actual live event and its very ephemerality. Even the best filmed play I’ve seen, Peter Hall’s extraordinary production of Pinter’s The Homecoming, is still not theater. Theater productions are once-in-a-lifetime events and that’s an essential part of what makes them magical. To film a play is really to do it a disservice; preserving the outer husk but nothing of what most matters.

So let’s close by looking forward to a great literary play performed on stage later this month, Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs (at the Boardmore, Cover of Les Belles SoeursJanuary 24th to 29th). It’s hard to think of a more landmark Canadian play, one that had anything like so great an initial impact or one that continues to be performed so regularly half a century after its original production. The play has been translated into many languages and performed around the world, including a Yiddish production, and there are two musical versions. I’ve seen it performed in French and English and in a Scottish adaptation, The Guid Sisters, and they were all hilarious. The play, which concerns working-class women in East Montreal, was quite controversial at its 1968 premier, and stage interpretation of the script remains a touchy subject. Are the women to be viewed satirically or tragically or triumphantly feminist?

It will be interesting to see what director Carolyn Dunn does with this Boardmore production of Les Belles-soeurs. Her assured direction of Sandra Dunn’s touching After She Goes, which won Best New Play at last year’s Boardmore One-Act Play Festival, was the stand-out experience of the festival for me. It’s such a pleasure to realize from the first moment of a play that you’re in good hands and can settle back, appreciate and enjoy. Dunn’s work in After She Goes reminded me of Liz Boardmore’s stage direction: detailed, clean and sensitive. Her interpretation of the more raucous Les Belles-soeurs promises to be a treat.


Featured photo: Cecil B. DeMille Theater by Rclick-wiki (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Ken Jessome


Arts reporter Ken Jessome was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His first play, The Little Darling, was directed for the Boardmore festival by Liz Boardmore while his full-length Rabbits and Blueberries appeared at the Boardmore and the Atlantic Canada Theatre Festival. His new play, The Girl Out Back, will be presented at this year’s Boardmore One-Act Play Festival in March.





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