Saturday, February 13, 2010

Theatre (sort of): Nation

National Theatre, London, transmitted to the Arts Cinema, Cambridge, 30/1/2010

The trick of taking operas and plays from major venues and transmitting them live to substantial cinemas via high-definition channels and appropriately competent display technology is a nice one, and this is the latest instance I've caught at the Arts in Cambridge; the National's Christmas show, an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's younger-readers alternate-world story by Mark Ravenhill. It seemed to be using more cameras and camera angles than previous transmissions of this type that I've seen, sometimes showing the projecting-stage performance from close up or even, bizarrely, from above. However, it was still a stage performance, using stage effects (puppets, cast members moving in and out of the spotlight, a model ship on yards of rippling fabric to represent the sea), rather than a movie with fancy CGI. For the first ten minutes or so, I found this a bit disconcerting, even silly, but the human brain can adjust to things; it came to work.

This was, as it proved, a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel, even preserving Pratchett's slightly cumbersome outer framework - although the first scene of chapter 1 was moved to late in the play (which I thought was a small mistake). A stage production couldn't convey the apocalyptic sense of the early scenes, of course, and the wildly (excessively?) dramatic flight from the great cave was necessarily lost; come to that, at a few times, the mime depiction of grand actions looked a bit silly. But - so far as I could recall, not having read the book for a year or so - pretty much everything seemed to be in there. The most substantial change was to the nature of Cox, the major villain of the piece, who was transformed from one of Pratchett's quasi-motivelessly malign psychopaths to someone with a personal connection to Daphne, the heroine; I guess that this gave the plot a bit more sharpness and focus, but it did have something of the loathsome Hollywood/kung fu movie habit of making every conflict personal.

Anyhow - on its own terms, the play worked pretty well, playing out Pratchett's intricate dance of ideals and ideologies, complete with lapses into mysticism despite the general humanist-materialist tenor of the argument. I get the impression that people who didn't know the book have been a bit confused by this thing, and to be honest, the book isn't one of Pratchett's best; both book and play may be a bit too schematic, really. It was well cast, though, I thought; Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe made attractive young leads, while Jason Thorpe had a gift of a role as Milton the parrot (no, really). The visual effects and puppet-work were great, too, helping to transport the audience into this strange tale. I wonder if the audience in London had a big advantage in being in the same room as all this stuff, or whether those of us watching the transmission, with all those multiple angles and close-in shots actually did better?

Whatever. An entertaining afternoon, and a good use of promising technology. Hey, if they just doubled the bandwidth, they could do this stuff in 3D...

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