Saturday, February 27, 2016

Going to the theatre … at a cinema: National Theatre’s "As You Like It" at Odyssey Cinemas

Multiplex cinemas are branching out beyond films. Their large screens and comfy chairs allow new audiences to experience vast theatrical and operatic productions that would never be able to travel outside capital city venues.

Last week I watched the National Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in Odyssey Cinemas in Titanic Quarter. Hundreds of people in the London theatre were joined by thousands sitting around the UK and beyond in cinemas at the end of a live satellite feed.

The point of view is a little different from the experience in a theatre. It’s like the difference between attending a sporting event and choosing where to focus your gaze and sitting at home following the action through the lens of the TV director. Five or six cameras dotted around the theatre along with a sweeping jib vary the viewing angles. Close-ups are rare. Frequently the picture drops back to a full stage view, letting the height of the set fill the cinema screen.

While you don’t have a glossy theatre programme in your hand, a photocopied leaflet details the cast and gives you an idea about how they relate to each other. For Shakespeare with his ridiculous number of characters, that’s quite important.

Any night of the week you could walk into at least a couple of Belfast theatres and find good quality drama on stage. There’s an active theatre scene in Derry too, and many indigenous productions tour around council-owned and privately run venues outside of the main cities.

But there’s nowhere that you could expect to see a set like the one designed by Lizzie Clachan with its busy (both in terms of activity and splashes of colour) low ceilinged office environment magically transformed after the first few scenes into a dark forest of tables for the remainder of the play. It’s mesmerising and beautiful to watch.

While there were a few times I’d like to have been able to see what was happening elsewhere on the stage, on balance it was a better view (and a nicer seat) than I’d have had in the National Theatre itself. I sat in the back row of the 'gods' for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time from where I could see all the action but none of the facial expressions, so getting a little closer to the action is appreciated.

This version of As You Like It transposes the early political and family machinations to a family business. It took me a while to pick out the key characters from the enormous cast during the wordy opening scenes. An ill-balanced wresting match is surreally engineered around a scene (the head locks were unlikely to be stage directions written by the great bard) before it’s time for cat pyjamas and furry animal slippers.

Once in the forest, a cappella singing adds music to Shakespeare’s verse, a chorus suspended up in the trees tweet like birds – and wail on occasion – while clowns and shepherds add to the humour of cross-dressing, a herd of (human) sheep, and unrequited love. The stars of the show were Rosalie Craig (playing Rosalind) and Patsy Ferran (Celia) … and the Norn Iron lad who lost his accent when he began to sing.

Unlike a New York Met Opera live stream of Turandot – a more traditional performance to compare with NI Opera’s interpretation during Belfast International Arts Festival – that I caught in different Belfast cinema last month where the video was noticeably ahead of the audio (a fault of the feed rather than the cinema) the sound from the National Theatre was beautifully mixed (probably 5.1 rather than just stereo).

As You Like It was just one of a whole series of shows being screened in Odyssey Cinemas over coming weeks and months. The National Theatre’s Hangmen (written by Martin McDonagh of The Pillowman fame) is being shown on Thursday 3 March at 7pm along with Royal Opera House shows Boris Godunov (21 March), Giselle (6 April), Frankenstein (18 May) and Royal Shakespeare Company performances of Hamlet (8 June), Cymbeline (28 September) and King Lear (12 October).

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