Friday, August 19, 2011

Theatrical Competition

Last night Robert, Lynn and I reprised our viewing of the Globe’s production of Henry IV Part 2. We first saw both parts live last year and I wrote about it then, (Witches, Saag Gosht, Hal and Falstaff, Air Fencing, Castles, Cliff Walks). This time we saw the HD broadcast performance of the same production in a movie theater. Two weeks ago we saw the broadcast of part 1.

What an extraordinary and amazing thing the Globe has done. Of course, something like it has been done before. For example, the Burton/Gielgud Hamlet was broadcast back in the early nineteen sixties (in black and white at much lower quality and resolution of course) and earlier this year, the Royal National broadcast their award winning production of Frankenstein. But I’ve never seen anything to equal what the Globe has achieved. Their cinematographic direction captures a level of experience not possible in any other way. In particular, for all the apparent visual tradition and conservatism of the productions, they are in fact a very edgy company. A perfect example is Hal’s meeting with his brothers after his father’s death. Usually, Hal is quite naturally somber and abashed. In contrast, Jamie Parker’s Hal is almost manically cheerful, conveying a realistic response to grief that could be easily misunderstood. The cinematography, in particular, the adroit use of close-ups captures the complexity of his performance, something it’s difficult to appreciate even if you’re sitting in the ground level galleries as we were last year.

I hope and expect the productions will find their way to DVD later this year and of course we will want them in our library. They are among the great productions of what now, justifiably, are being called England’s national epic. I feel honored and incredibly lucky to have seen them.

In contrast, there’s the lavish production of five of Shakespeare’s plays that the RSC has brought to New York. Two are reviewed in this week’s New Yorker by Hilton Als who calls them “dated and musty.” There was a time when I would have taken issue with such a scathing dismissal but unfortunately it’s consistent with my experience of the RSC productions I’ve seen while Michael Boyd has been director. I felt much the same way about their production of Hamlet with Toby Stephens and the Romeo and Juliet performed in the same season. It’s particularly sad for me, as more than a few years ago, they mounted a production of Henry V with Alan Howard, a play I wasn’t greatly fond of at time, which was life changing.

The two companies are competitors, of course, though I’ve never seen any statement from either company acknowledging that obvious fact. For decades the RSC had no competition and now that they do they’ve yet to figure out how to respond gracefully and successfully. Worse, they are uniquely disadvantaged: though they enjoy exceptional public support, their home is in Stratford whereas the Globe is in London which is much more accessible to a broader audience. Further, there is the immense advantage of the recreated Glove theatre, an experience in itself.
So what can the RSC do? Do what hi-tech companies do: steal their competitors good ideas, elaborate them, and innovate themselves, dramatically. It’s what Apple did and does.

Formal fencing begins for us next week in earnest. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

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