Over the past month we’ve been out and about to see moving pictures projected on three very different live performance stages. From the detailed digital backdrops of CITY OF GLASS (Lyric Hammersmith) to the sonic roar of THE UNFILMABLES (BFI) and the miniature memory palace of Robert Lepage’s 887 (Barbican), London’s stages are alive with adventurous moving pictures. Let’s dive in.
CITY OF GLASS (Lyric Hammersmith, seen on 12.05.17)
As committed fans of video we were intrigued to see the first piece of theatre directed by Leo Warner, founder of 59 Productions. 59 is the globe-trotting studio behind the video used in WAR HORSE, the LONDON 2012 OPENING CEREMONY and much else – you will know their work even if you can’t name the team. The play itself was based on Paul Auster’s post-modern detective noir, CITY OF GLASS, adapted for the stage by Duncan Macmillan.
The extensive video projections designed by Lysander Ashton looked stunning and were used primarily for three things: set design, nuggets of dramatic underscoring and a final – thrilling – act of transcendence.
The digital set is a marvel. What initially looks like a traditional construction of flats, windows and doors turns out to be a series of screens with room designs projected onto them. This gives rise to richly detailed environments and mellifluous transitions. Forged from photographic realism with a dash of animated magic, the projections convince you that picture frames have been hung and fire escapes inserted into walls. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to the illusion.
Elsewhere, the use of video to spice up the drama is more patchy. When the voiceover tells us that it’s snowing outside and snow indeed starts to fall on the digital backdrop, magical realism is replaced by a more pedantic picture-making. For all of 59’s legendary status, the projection of writing up the wall or glass shattering behind the cast feels like garnish to the main meat.
Returning to form, the climax packs a real punch as 59 clashes physical and digital realities together to stage the ultimate transcendence of Auster’s Russian doll writer within a writer within a writer. The stage fills with smoke, projection beams become multi-dimensional and sound blasts an already elevated theatre into the stratosphere. This ecce homo moment is epic, thrilling stuff.
Alas, there’s an elephant in the projected room… For all the digital dexterity on display, the play is hampered by ugly, unresolved storytelling. An over reliance on voiceover smothers everything under a blanket of exposition. This isolates the actors onstage, leaving them without motivation or momentum. Indeed, until the digital blastoff, dramatic tension is so absent that we were – rather unkindly – reminded of THE PHANTOM MENACE: a talented cast burdened by a lacklustre script and a digital domain that threatens to engulf them.
SONIC CINEMA: THE UNFILMABLES (BFI, 09.06.17)
Next up was THE UNFILMABLES at BFI, a Live Cinema UK project. The big pitch was the tantalising ‘what if?’ of Hollywood’s unfilmed screenplays, teasing us in advance with enigmatic evocations of David Lynch’s ‘Return of the Jedi’, Alejandro Jodorwosky’s ‘Dune’ and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’.
Inspired by these near-mythic starting points, creative producer Colm McAuliffe commissioned the Wranglers to deal with Clair Noto’s unfilmed 1980s sci-fi THE TOURIST whilst Levi sisters, Mica and Francesca, dreampt up ‘lost northern classic’ THE COLOUR OF CHIPS (riffing freely on the rather more seminal THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES).
What did we get?
First up, Francesca and Mica Levi’s THE COLOUR OF CHIPS is an affectionate low-key tribute to a “town built on chips”. The film is a textural study of a fading place full of pride and memory as seen through the eyes of a seafront psychic. Through Francesca’s nostalgia tinged images, and Mica’s richly resonant sounds, we are taken on a gentle stroll to find the “extraordinary in the ordinary”.
In his introduction, McAuliffe dismissed the idea of seeing silent films with a live score as overly passive, but that is essentially what we get here. Despite Mica’s on-stage button noodling, it is also hard to see how her live performance of the score added significantly to our experience of Francesca’s prerecorded images. The issue here is more to do with McAuliffe’s hyperbole than the final – charming – experience: something we’ll return to later.
After a few minutes of tweaked sound levels, Wrangler launched into their set. Here notions of live performance are much more pronounced as three shaman sit in the dark beating, prodding and mashing their electronic devices to summon sound from silicon. Over the other side of the stage Dan Conway – literally – rocks along, cueing and mixing the visuals to weave a distinctly different experience at each performance.
THE TOURIST as reimagined by Wrangler is loud and percussive, filling the giant screen of NFT1 with Tash Tung’s elegant TRUE BLOOD meets TOMORROW’S WORLD visuals. It is altogether different to the Levi’s piece: a more aggressive artwork, Wrangler attacks the void around them, projected light bouncing off the screen and electronica flooding the auditorium. Caught in their sonic onslaught, we are simple star children on a wildly fragmented journey through time and space.
And this is where the experience unravels slightly… McAuliffe promised us full fat apple crumble but – at risk of sounding like self-righteous MasterChef critics – all we got served was a ‘deconstructed’ dessert. That’s not to say the evening didn’t result in some stellar moments, but the final dish lacked the satisfying heft of a good pud. There’s something here about elevated pricing that shouldn’t leave you looking for the moment at the end of a meal where you can push the chair back and unbutton your trousers…
887 (Barbican, seen on 10.06.17)
Our final stage excursion was 887, Robert Lepage’s stunning memory play at the Barbican. Lepage’s ‘monologue with a dollhouse’ explores issues of memory – particularly what gets remembered and what gets forgotten – as well as themes of childhood, class and culture. Never one to fully dial back, Lepage’s tale morphs into a history lesson about Francophone separatism and touches upon issues of – his – celebrity.
Moving images are magical throughout. Small screens inserted into the dollhouse give us REAR WINDOW-like insight into neighbour’s lives in the apartment block Lepage grew up in. Larger scale video projection creates a magical shadow play with his young sister and illustrates the failing firings of his grandmother’s ageing brain. Live onstage cameras play with the miniature set’s sense of scale, giving us a guided tour of Christmases past as Lepage raises the dollhouse roof to lower his streaming iPhone inside.
Highlights come thick and fast. A Pac-man style animation vividly recreates a night of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and its chaotic aftermath. A low-level camera crawls across the stage, slowly shrinking Lepage back through time to his childhood experience as victim of an on the spot search at the barrel of a gun. A hilarious pocket performance sees a much diminished dignitary, Charles de Gaulle, holding forth on French nationalism.
This was a masterpiece of restraint and control where the moving images are seamlessly integrated within the stage craft. After two spell-binding hours, performer, physical and digital aspects unified to achieve one simple goal: magical story-telling.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Discover Live Cinema UK’s commitment to “amazing experiential cinema events”.
- Check out Clair Noto, screenwriter behind THE TOURIST (still categorised as in development on imdb).
- HRGIGER.com – the legendary artist’s first official webpage – gives good account of THE TOURIST’S many meanderings through development hell.
- Learn more about Lepage’s Canadian theatre company Ex Machina.
- Explore 59 Production’s incredible back catalogue of digital make believe.
Featured image: 887, Ex Machina.