Performing arts: recasting the classics

Immersion is the new buzz-word for anyone staging classic works in the performing arts today. Whether it is Macbeth with mobile phones or ‘3D ballet’, the entertainment industry is upping its game to capture the attention of the Twitter generation

What does a director responsible for the highest-grossing movie of the decade do next? Joss Whedon may have been on a roll after the staggering, US$1.5bn success of The Avengers, but the temptation to shoot something even more blockbusting never crossed his mind. Instead, he turned to Shakespeare, filming Much Ado About Nothing in black-and-white in just 12 days, in his own house. “It was a text I’ve loved for years and years,” he said at the time. “Actually, it’s rather like The Avengers: you have an ensemble, and you have to make everybody matter.”

It transpires Shakespeare is actually in Whedon’s creative DNA: during shooting for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he would invite his actors back to his house to read through the Bard’s works. But Whedon’s Much Ado was neither a stuffy period drama nor a loosely-linked version of a Shakespeare play in the vein of 10 Things I Hate About You. Instead, it was set in a middle-class Californian suburb with Benedick and Beatrice driving cars, but the language remained untouched.

Every generation recasts the classics in its own image, but there is the sense that in the 21st century, it really is no longer enough to simply stage a faithful Elizabethan adaptation. Today’s audiences expect far more. And what’s encouraging is that they’re getting it.

Relevant

Patrick Spottiswoode is Director of Globe Education, the strand of Shakespeare’s Globe in London that devises adaptations of the Bard’s plays, especially for young people. For the past three years, its exuberant open-air productions have transferred to the UAE, but this isn’t just a worthy exercise in cultural education. The atmosphere at its production of Macbeth in 2011 was more like a pop festival, with the excitable teenage crowd gathering around the stage, whooping and cheering. Spottiswoode smiles at the memory.

“When I was a lad, when I went to the theatre, I sat in the dark and watched a world that was created for me,” he says. “It was a world I looked at, was emotionally involved with, and thought about, but ultimately felt separated from. The thing about the Globe is that you don’t sit and watch the plays, you’re in them – you’re immersed, you’re involved. And I think that both reflects our increasingly interactive world and encourages people, in this world of solitary electronic devices, to remember what it’s like to laugh and cry with each other.”

Like Joss Whedon, the Globe’s productions place the action in a world that is relevant to its audience. The dress is often modern, and in Macbeth, an assassin proves he has slain Banquo by showing a picture on his mobile phone. But the language remains.

“The verse and prose is the beating heart of the plays, and when you add in the physical and visual stimulus, when you hear it rather than read it, it’s not difficult to understand,” says Spottiswoode. “Shakespeare was a great wordsmith – a bit like a rap artist of today, who coins new words and sounds. I mean, I don’t understand all the American slang in the movies, but that doesn’t mean I hit ‘pause’ to look up the vocabulary. The context and the plot and the story drives me on.”

More than 17,000 schoolchildren across the world see a Globe Education production every year, and there is the sense that culture is steadily becoming more democratised as organisations are forced to devise new, exciting ways of delivering content to audiences to stand out from the crowd. Ballet, for example, is traditionally viewed as rather exclusive: if a family wants to go and see Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House in London this winter, it could easily cost them more than US$500 for good seats. So the broadcast of a live performance of Swan Lake this June in cinemas across the world was an intriguing development.

Immersive experience

Live theatrical experiences in the cinema are increasingly prevalent, but this version of Swan Lake by the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg took matters a step further. It was broadcast in 3D, with the help of Cameron Pace – the company set up by James Cameron and Vince Pace – and used the same Oscar-winning technology as in Avatar.

“It was absolutely not a gimmick,” asserts  Ann McGuire, from the production company Glass Slipper. “I had gone to the Mariinsky Theatre previously and was spellbound. It seemed such a shame that this experience wasn’t being shared by more people. Soon after that, I saw the Wim Wenders film on Pina Bausch, which showed that with dance, 3D can really work. It felt that the time was right.”

3D has its critics in blockbuster movies, but in Swan Lake 3D its immersive qualities were so well judged, audiences sitting in darkened cinemas thousands of miles away from the action were applauding as if they were in the Mariinsky Theatre itself. In the old days, there may have been one static camera filming the action. Here, there was a whole host of angles, with a choreographed script for the director to work from. McGuire says it enabled people to understand the ballet in a way that is impossible even from the best seats in the house.

“We broadcast it in the adjoining theatre to 2,000 more people, and I realised that this is a big-screen experience, and like being in the theatre, too.”

Crucially, it has opened up Swan Lake to a whole new audience who might otherwise have had financial or geographical obstacles to visiting a show – for example, McGuire is planning to screen the performance of Swan Lake 3D in Dubai in the near future.

“In Russia, there’s nothing stuffy about ballet – it’s just dance that everyone  enjoys,” she adds. “And I genuinely do think that the minute it becomes widely available and not too expensive, everyone enjoys it – from the child who loves the fairy stories, to the suffering boyfriend who becomes enthralled by the amazing feats of athleticism.”