Disclaimers: I have not seen this production in person at the Bridge Theatre. The following is a piece exploring the broadcast of this production which was streamed live to cinemas on the 22nd of March, 2018. The second disclaimer is that this piece is directed for a large part by the research materials of my PhD, broadcast “paratexts” or extra video materials. As such, this review does little to comment on the production itself, instead focusing on its mediation through live broadcasting.

As Brutus is wooed by Cassius to the cause of assassinating Caesar, he warily observes that the eye sees not itself / but by reflection, by some other things’. Brutus is not alone in his attention to the power of a mediated view: a power which was exercised with visceral impact in the National Theatre’s live broadcasting of the production on Thursday 22nd of March. This broadcast of Hytner’s promenade production is the latest in the NT Live canon, which stretches back almost a decade. As such, it comes with a range of aesthetic expectations, not only through association with past NT Live broadcasts, but as part of the wider cultural colossus that is live-streamed productions of Shakespeare plays. Focusing first on the paratextual material and then on the stylised shot choices, this broadcast will be considered for its captivating deviance – for teasing the conventions of the live theatre broadcast (LTB) form, even making a fair few innovative rents into the corpus of Shakespearean broadcasts.

The liberality of cuts to the text means that this broadcast was notable for its omission of an interval. This would seem to place the cinema viewer in direct experiential partnership with those seeing the show in person, complete with in media res toilet trips. Furthermore, for all intents and purposes, this pre-set action showed no sign of adhering to the conventionalised format of a presenter giving a verbal commentary anticipating the action of the play, advertising upcoming NT Live broadcasts, and encouraging viewers to respond on social media (though, as it transpired, a presenter would indeed be used). The feed instead began with pre-material: a mini-stage on which a band plays a set, with the audience of the pit covering the largest majority of ground they will claim for the whole production. Flags, merchandise sellers, a drink stall and a majority young-adult audience all evoked the sense of a music festival.  So, too, did the sweeping aerial shots, close-ups of band equipment and performers, interspersed with headshots of audience members singing along call to mind other genres of broadcast entertainment – none more explicitly than the BBC’s broadcasting of the Glastonbury festival. Even the running banner along the bottom third of the screen, which appeared periodically with the NT Live logo, conjured the streaming of live Twitter commentary on festival broadcasts.

This parallel reached its apex with the band performing ‘Seven Nation Army’, whose thrumming guitar riff had been appropriated into the politically-charged crowd chant,

‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ at Glastonbury last year.[1] The effect of this was not solely to conjure a spirit of a politically disenfranchised (or perhaps empowered?) youth, or even to set the play’s opening scene as one of festival recreation.[2] Rather, the aesthetic misdirection of another live broadcast medium (here music festivals) established an experiential effort towards immersion. This is not the accustomed proscenium arch staging of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, nor is it even the thrust stage and darkened auditorium of another external venue previously broadcast by NT Live, the Donmar Warehouse. By drawing on festival aesthetics, the pre-set action of this Caesar acted as a preliminary paratext whose focus was experiential – to ground this broadcast’s stance solidly within the pit and amongst the audience.

Also within the audience was the broadcast’s briefly-utilised presenter, Kirsty Lang. Lang, though fulfilling a role which is largely a convention within the medium, looked strangely conspicuous in the setting. Brandishing a microphone and artificially lit (all signifiers of standard LTB preliminary material, both in NT Live broadcasts and those of their main competitor, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Live from Stratford-upon-Avon’), Lang suffered from the strong festival aesthetics by looking as if she had been placed in the wrong broadcast genre. When she jokingly claimed, ‘It really is Shakespeare, it’s not a rock concert’, it felt as if she were willing it to be so more than declaring it. Nonetheless, Lang’s preliminary monologue transposed a number of NT Live and wider LTB conventions into the comparatively unconventional opening, narrating in-set slides to advertise upcoming broadcasts, naming a few of the production’s top-billed actors, inviting commentary on social media and generally anticipating the action.

Typically, alongside other preliminary video materials, the LTB presenter signifies the threshold from the cinema’s selected adverts into the world of the theatre and of the performance. She (and it is, with overwhelming frequency, she) ushers us, the cinema audience, from the medium-centred exclusivity of cinema viewing with all its privileged, behind-the-scenes voyeurism into the mediated theatrical performance which constitutes the “main event”. Yet, parallel to Lang’s introduction was the musical set, still audible and even slightly visible in the background. We, the cinema audience, were conscious that we were witnessing a framing device within a framing device, an intermediate interruption of what would have been a continual performance for the majority of audience members at the Bridge Theatre (particularly those oblivious to the filming of Lang’s introduction). The immersive filming aesthetics which had been established by this allusion to a music festival proved so immersive that even the broadcast’s introductory paratexts were consumed within those of the theatrical production.

Therefore, Lang’s introduction parallel to, and in the middle of, the production’s pre-set action offered two oppositional ushers into the world of the play: the former of familiar and medium-centred convention, the latter of filmic and televisual intertextuality and tone-setting immersion. John Wyver has noted, with reference to the RSC’s debut season of broadcasts, that a common cinema audience complaint was that these preliminary and intermediary materials encroach upon the experience of watching the production.[3] But Lang’s immersion within the crowd and her position in the middle of the musical set reversed this relationship: it was the play’s idiosyncratic opening which imposed upon the preliminary introduction and made it appear, by contrast, awkwardly conventionalised.

As well as the NT Live introduction providing a seeming “interruption” to the theatrical experience, the broadcast’s use of stylised shots continually hinted at those slippery some other things’ which might be mediating this particular reflection. Frequently, shots encompassed the broadcast’s cameramen. This was particularly noticeable in the production’s latter half, when occasional blackouts drew attention to the blue-lit screens of camera operators. It is not an overstatement to say that, outside of the extra video materials, it is still relatively taboo within the medium to highlight mechanics of a LTB. The deliberate invisibility of cameras, microphones and track equipment has long been acknowledged as an attempt to reduce the evidence that the theatrical performance (whose ideal reconstruction is, ostensibly, paramount) is in any way mediated. This is certainly the line delivered to actors as well, who are generally discouraged from trying to alter their performances.[4] However, just as the production’s rousing opening musical set stamped its authority on the NT Live paratexts, so too did the immersive promenade staging draw attention to the methods of its filming.

The camera-encompassing shots perhaps suggest that these glimpses are unintentional, the mechanics of the broadcast caught negotiating a complex and protean theatre space. Interestingly though, intentional nods to the broadcast’s mechanics of filming were recurrent in the form of stylised, handheld camera shots. Utilised with style for Caesar’s entrances, the broadcast’s handheld shots frequently alluded to the constructed reality genres of Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Jerry Springer. Torso-level, behind the back shots traced Caesar’s entrances whilst setting the frame from the perspective of someone following in his train. This is a trope commonly used in WWE to hype crowds, place the gaze “within the gang” and therefore on the side of the wrestler, and (somewhat ironically for the ageing Caesar, though pertinent for the play’s fascination with his physical infirmities) to accentuate their physicalities.

Comparable shots are common to talk shows such as Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle, and are noticeable for their anticipation of an entrance (particularly when the person they are tracking is expected to cause trouble upon arrival). As with their sister-shots in WWE, these are intended both to hype the crowd and to anticipate violent action by drawing attention to the fast-moving capability of handheld cameras. This latter association is particularly pertinent considering the foreknowledge the majority of audience members will have when watching a play like Julius Caesar. As these handheld shots track Caesar’s entrances, they allow the cinema audience to continually, albeit subconsciously, anticipate the violent action of the assassination in a way which parallels the preoccupation of the play. These aesthetic allusions to the genre of constructed reality TV distinctly characterised the broadcast’s representation of Caesar in Rome, subtly imbuing his political power with the threat and the falsity of consciously performative, culturally maligned genres.

In contrast, shots of the conspirators regularly rose above the crowd. Framing the shots at shoulder height, the broadcast’s more conventional, static shots were continually conscious of the dark space which encompassed the edges of the Bridge Theatre. Interestingly, these dark recesses of space did hold seated audience members. This selective lighting, which contrasted the illuminated and prominently displayed standing audience whilst occluding the theatre’s second, more removed audience, is testament to the broadcast’s foregrounding of the immersive experience. The dark edges of the Bridge space frequently broke down scenes of dialogue into shots which replicated studio monologues: this effect was particularly memorable as Michelle Fairley’s Cassius waxed revolutionary on the necessity of the assassination. As well as foregrounding performances by the production’s seasoned big-hitters: Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw, the frequent shots which engaged the theatre’s dark abyss of a backdrop highlighted unexpected nuances. For example, Whishaw’s Brutus reasoned out the ethics of political assassination with an almost hypnotic legerdemain which, against a black backdrop, was all the more intricate and visible to a cinema audience. These comparatively static shots set a sophisticated aesthetic contrast between the conspirators and Caesar: the latter  “trash-television” and in-yer-face camerawork, the former pauses of stillness and deliberation. By juxtaposing the shots of Caesar’s entrances so starkly with those surrounding the conspirators, the mediating and potentially biased presence of the broadcast itself remained visible.

A final aesthetic choice is notable before we leave Rome. During Caesar’s funeral, the hyper-public ceremony bled into shots which embraced audience point of view (POV), even to the point of giving partially obstructed views of the action. The POV framing of this scene was consistent, and noticeably consistent when a static shot captured only aurally the separate cries of the citizens. We, the cinema audience, here impersonated within the Bridge pit through the camera’s gaze, only heard the shouts turn from a support of Brutus to revolt against the conspirators. The commenting citizens remained visually anonymous – as, indeed, did we, embodied only by the cinematic gaze. As the stage space shifted – stewards shouting ‘Make a ring!’ – to encircle Caesar’s body, the anonymity of the cinematic gaze within the crowd continued periodically. The temptation (and, as is often the case in LTB, the obligation) to give an untampered view of the action did not hinder the aesthetic desire to give an immersed shot in this scene. A pertinent example of this came when Morrisey’s Antony bent to wipe the tears of a spectator (Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity’). It was only discernible by piecing together wider shots that had come before that this spectator was in fact Wendy Kweh, who until this point we recognised as Calpurnia. In the theatre, attention to this moment of interaction – the tactical doubling allowing the feeling of a shared moment of mourning between Caesar’s closest political and personal allies – would have been poignant. No less poignant, however, was the experience of watching this moment from the camera’s position within the crowd and, potentially, identifying as cinema viewers with the anonymity and emotional response of someone we presume could be a normal theatre spectator, rather than a plant from within the cast.

This type of framing, with all its connotations of conventional replication of the theatre experience for a cinema viewer, was also used to create the havoc of warfare when the play’s action was hurtling towards its conclusion in Philippi. In time with the sound of gunfire and flashing lights, the solid blocks of staging in the Bridge pit fractured with speed and urgency. In the cinema, our experience of this scene change was tempered by POV shots, similar to those used for Caesar’s funeral. The biggest distinction, however, was that these shots threw us into the havoc of the pit. Shots of the fast-moving audience gave this scene change a tacit air of push-and-shove.[5] (The same air of push-and-shove had been not so tacit in the Cinna the poet scene. Fred Fergus’s Cinna was the victim of what, through the broadcast lens, felt distinctly like a sinister nod to the camerawork of the “happy-slapping” criminal trend of around a decade ago.)

Where the same style of POV shots in Caesar’s funeral had provided an immersive and almost pseudo-embodied feeling of “being there”, the comparable shots of the staging change for Philippi had the opposite effect. The physicality that dominated these particular POV shots and gave the impression of dangerous tactility also acted as a stark reminder of the camera as a mediating tool. Imagining oneself in the crowded pit for Caesar’s funeral is no big leap when the camerawork emphasises the gaze above all else. But, in mediating our experience of the tangible fracas which anticipates the play’s warfare, as a spectator in the cinema we are all the more aware that we are not the ones being maneuvered and manipulated into ever-changing spaces. The camera may attempt to recreate an embodied presence on behalf of the cinema viewer, as in Caesar’s funeral, but neither the camera nor the experience is bodily. That is not to say that the aesthetic effect of these shots was nullified – in creating a sense of chaos, they were potent and efficient. Rather, it is to point to the disjunct between cinematic embodiment and theatrical bodily reality that haunts this particular production and broadcasting of immersive theatre. This disjunct is one which characterises this nonetheless landmark broadcast: a homage to the production’s unapologetic promenade physicality which itself acknowledges the pitfalls and possibilities of mediation. Just as the eye sees not itself but by reflection, in this broadcast the reflective methods remind us that what we are seeing is both an inevitably doomed reconstruction and an artful adaptation.

This piece was first published on That Girl Pen

Production shots by Manuel Harlan

[1] Thanks to Charlie Morton for pointing out to me, mid-broadcast and with a riveting demonstration, that this rhythm also fits ‘Oh Julius Caesar’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVO_pQIUER0

[2] While the production’s wider bias towards the conspirators was pretty clear-cut, I’ve been wracking my brain to try and determine the intended sympathies of the opening musical set. If they are happy with Caesar being in power (as their adopted characters in the opening scene suggest, and as would be supported by Morrisey as Antony using the platform himself), what is the source of disillusionment behind their original chant, ‘We’re not gonna take it’? If anyone has thoughts on this, I’d love to engage a conversation about it (or, indeed, if you have any thoughts about this review, I’m on Twitter @mirthnomatter).

[3] John Wyver, ‘Screening the RSC stage: the 2014 Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcasts’, Shakespeare (2015), 11:3, pp. 286-302.

[4] I was fortunate to be able to interview actors on their experiences of being broadcast for a collection which is being published in July this year, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone interested in studying broadcasts.

[5] Though I can’t comment on the production’s real physicality, Andy Kesson has written engagingly on the issues of Hytner and designer Bunny Christie’s choice of staging for the fantastic blog, Before Shakespeare.  Andy Kesson,  ‘I do fear the people’: Theatre and the Problem with Audiences” 16/02/2018 https://beforeshakespeare.com/2018/02/16/julius-caesar-and-the-politics-of-having-an-audience/