Thursday, December 2, 2010

VOLPONE AND THE DUCHESS OF MALFI ON DVD FROM GREENWICH THEATRE LONDON


*** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

The idea of recording stage performances is as old as the movie camera. There are strips of film of productions from well before the advent of sound but without the dialogue they are of historical value only. Cameras were poised in theatres after sound came to the movies but most of the results were less than perfect. There is a respectable collection of recordings of Broadway productions but they come with a warning. They may represent significant even great performances but the sound and video quality leave a great deal to be desired.

Digital technology may have changed much of that. Recordings of operas on DVD have become commonplace. They can frequently boast superior sound and video quality but there is no shortage of duds. New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company has gone into broadcasting some of its productions live and in high definition around the globe.

Theatres have been slow to jump in partially, I suppose, because of the language barrier. You can broadcast Don Pasquale or Das Rheingold anywhere in the world and opera lovers will enjoy the production thanks to subtitles. King Lear or Tartuffe, even if done by the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Comedie Fran├žaise, are unlikely to be big hits with people who do not understand English or French.

Happily England’s National Theatre has jumped into the fray with a number of productions that it has broadcast from its London home. All we can hope for is that there will be enough interest and audience generated to make the broadcasts frequent.

Stage on Screen, an English company, has joined in with the production of two DVDs of classic English plays that were produced at The Greenwich Theatre London, a small house with big ambitions.

The plays are Ben Jonson’s Volpone and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. I saw both productions live at The Greenwich last spring. I counted seven (apparently there were eight) cameras spread around the theatre recording the performances for future editing and release. I now have the DVDs and it is interesting to compare the live performance with the recorded one.

There are some clear advantages to the recorded performance. One advantage is the close-up. You can see every facial expression and movement far more clearly on the DVD than live. Jonson’s and Webster’s language can be difficult but you can switch on the subtitles and be helped with the text. You can watch scenes repeatedly and for students the DVDs should be a great boon to studying the plays.

The above advantages have an obverse side as well. The close-ups are decided for you by the video director and there are times when you see more than you want. The reaction of the listener may be more important than the tone of the speaker but you have little choice as to what you will watch. Some shots are clearly lousy but, usually, they are done fairly professionally. The microphones do not record everything evenly and you do get some gaffes.

Actors on stage speak very differently from actors in a movie. The former are speaking to the people in the back row of the theatre whereas the latter have no such restriction and can speak pianissimo or fortissimo as the scene dictates.

All of these pros and cons apply to Volpone and The Duchess of Malfi. The productions had a shared cast and it was interesting to see actors in different roles. Mark Hadfield played the conniving, oily, hand-wringing Mosca in Volpone and the brutal Cardinal in The Duchess. Very different roles delivered with confidence.

Tim Treloar is Voltore and Bosola, Maxwell Hutcheon is Corbaccio and Pescara and Tim Steed plays Corvino and Ferdinand, all respectively and effectively in Volpone and in The Duchess.

Richard Bremmer is a larger-than life example of unbridled rapacity. He simply enjoys taking people’s wealth on the pretext that he is about to die and will leave his wealth to the most generous dupe. Greedy citizens of Venice are prepared to disinherit their sons, give him their daughters and offer their wives on the promise of becoming his sole heir.

Aislin McGuckin played the role of Celia, who is supposed to be a very beautiful woman after whom Volpone lusts. She looked unattractive live and even worse close up on the DVD. She has much better luck as the Duchess of Malfi and gives a superb performance as a strong woman surrounded by evil.

The sets for both productions were rather sparse and meant to be interchangeable. The most visible part is the black and white chequered floor. The vagaries of lighting made the background almost invisible and you ended up watching actors speaking with nothing but darkness behind them. This was so even in the live performance but it is far more pronounced in the DVD.

Elizabeth Freestone directed both productions. The emphasis is on the language and content of the plays and both productions in their own way are minimalist. One can hardly complain for being given the opportunity to hear and experience these marvelous plays that are rarely seen in Canada.

For more information, visit: www.stageonscreen.com

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