Reviving the Past – Re-watching classic productions in the age of the internet

One of the great problems that theatre, and theatre criticism, has always faced is it suffers from an intrinsic impermanence, an ethereal nature that is born out of the nature of live performances. Of course it is exactly these elements that make theatre such a thrilling experience, which gives it a sense of immediacy and danger that cannot be matched by film or TV – despite their ability to provide a much more realistic sense of place that doesn’t require the active suspension of disbelief.

Every night the audience – be it two, twenty, two hundred or two thousand – share an experience that can never be replicated. Performance to performance will continue to be different, even with the same cast, and once a play ends its run, or changes it cast, something is fundamentally lost that cannot be reclaimed. A great play may be revived but a great production must disappear and only be retold through the memories of those who witnessed it.

Books have been written about the ground-breaking nature of Peter Brook’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but there is no way to recreate the sensation of what it must have been like for those who were there and who, perhaps unwittingly and at the time unknowingly, were experiencing a revolution in what it means to stage Shakespeare.

It is a sign of how the internet has so transformed how people approach the consummation of information that this feels like it could be a problem. Prior to filesharing, legal or illegal, people were able to rent videos but there was a cost attached to it. Music was even more difficult to get hold of – it could be rented from the library but obscure music had to be tracked down or saved up to buy. In the era of Youtube and Spotify the cost of consumption has fallen to a virtual pittance and, either as a result of or alongside this, a generation has developed in a world where it is entirely possible to take a magpie approach to culture. Why should we look forward when all the greats of the past are so easily accessible?

The tribal sense of fealty to ‘your’ music – the mods, the goths, the new romantics, the punks – appears to have been lost to a wave of people who can happily listen to The Who, The Cure and Ultravox whilst intermittently switching to the best bits of Blood on the Tracks and A Kind of Blue.

It seems it is not enough to live within your own culture when you can absorb it from all times. The question that it seems to pose is whether this is making us fundamentally conservative – looking back to the past for validation of our choices rather than pushing into new territory – or does it allow for a much more rounded sense of the now by looking back to understand how we have got to where ‘here’ is?

Theatre is slowly joining other cultural streams in sharing its back catalogue – whether willingly as through the quite wonderful Digital Theatre – or by the army of users playing little caution to copyright and posting videos to Youtube. The argument that it builds in an intrinsic conservatism is worrying and not without merit, I think there is a greater value in exposing theatre to a wider, global audience. Theatre has been so limited, far more than TV, film or music, by the constraints of time and place that the ability to breakdown these boundaries through the internet are only to be applauded.

Youtube captures an audience that might not experience the theatre in any other context– and to spend a life without even an awareness of playwrights of the power of Pinter, Arthur Miller, Martin Crimp or John Osborne or all the rest?

The Caretaker

What drove these musings was the unexpected treat of receiving The Caretaker for Christmas. Having seen it twice on stage, it was a delight to suddenly have in my hands the chance of watching two-thirds of the original cast and also, if Donald Pleasance as Davies and Alan Bates as Mick weren’t quite enough,  throwing in Robert Shaw as Aston.

It is opportunities such as this that underpin why looking back is so important. Superb actors in a seminal play by one of our greatest playwrights – these are the things that should be recorded and stored for all time. It certainly isn’t perfect – it has been opened out so that scenes take place outside (even if it was adapted by Pinter it still feels like a mistake and a sop to the financiers) and there is a certain boxiness to the interior scenes which bear the hallmarks of 60’s TV.

However when you have the opportunity to see an actor of the calibre of Robert Shaw giving an absolutely chilling rendition of Aston’s monologue about being admitted to the mental hospital the problems of the staging disappear into the background and you are lost, transfixed, in Pinter’s overpoweringly direct dialogue that always contains such an eerie and unquantifiable sense of menace.

This sense of menace is framed even more clearly in the exchanges between Mick and Davies. Mick’s baiting of Davies in ‘You remind of a man…’ is both comic and terrifying in equal measure and highlights Pinter’s exceptional ability to create a disquieting unease in everyday conversations. The clip below is not the best but it does show-off the talents of Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates in giving full range to the verbal dexterity of Pinter’s dialogue. Mick expertly controls the conversational flow – switching between attack and defence so that Davies is continually thrown off-balance and creating a palpable air of tension for the audience despite revealing very little.

New World Order is a terrifying Brave New World

New World OrderHydrocracker, Shoreditch Town Hall, Running until 11 December 2011

Winding from the ornate meeting rooms and private recesses of power, where bureaucrats discuss policy and the media is entertained, down to the bowels of the building, through long forgotten corridors where concrete crumbles away from the walls and barren rooms echo to the sounds of clanking boilers and the scurrying of mice; Hydrocracker have created a staggeringly potent panorama of institutionalised state power, a lucid dream that unfolds to reveal nightmarish dimensions.

New World Order is an amalgam of five of Harold Pinter’s shorter work, deriving from his later period where his output began to more directly engage in questions of politics and control. Despite being a playwright who took fastidious care over every element of the script, it is hard to believe that Pinter, the political animal, would not have given his support to Ellie Jones’ superb reimagining that knits together five separate pieces so effortlessly that the joins between the work are made practically invisible (the only distinguishing mark being subtle changes in the linguistic character of different scenes).

Most impressive is the use of location to create a unity of action. Site-specific and immersive productions may have boomed in popularity in recent years, and as a result become short hand for companies wishing to demonstrate their innovation, but none has managed the unification of text and place that Hydrocracker have achieved through locating their work within Shoreditch Town Hall.

It is an inspired choice and the building is absolutely integral to the success of the piece. As the audience is led through the site, it becomes a living, breathing character of its own. Everything about the building exists in a contextual history of real politics, so when the audience halt on a staircase to let two policy wonks, deep in conversation pass, it is shocking to realise that rather than discussing the minutiae of planning regulations, they are in fact debating how many opposition supporters can be dealt with before they lose support of the general public.

Hydrocracker has clearly understood that location is everything. Led past a plaque detailing all the former mayors and into a conference room set-up for a press conference, the audience are reassured by familiar sights of the political establishment and are empowered to embrace the realism of the situation. It is only when people begin to speak that everything reveals itself to be off-kilter, and from that point on the audience are drawn ever further into the world of state-mandated terror.

Click here to continue to full review