Review – Theatre on Tap
Stage on Screen bridges the gap between drama and film
Pupils hoping for top marks when tackling drama questions at GCSE or A level are at a huge advantage if they can see that drama staged. And if that staging is professional then so much the better. But it is not always possible for schools to get to such productions.
Now, however, Stage on Screen gives teachers and young people access to performances of classical set plays on DVD and soon for download via YouTube.
“Stage on Screen starts with fully fledged theatre productions, which are filmed during the run,” founder Phil Rees explains. “Two versions are created: an unedited wide shot showing the entire production from a single vantage point and an edited ’filmic’ version, created by editing footage from five cameras.”
The current captured plays are Doctor Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi, Volpone (pictured below) and The School for Scandal – all productions staged at the Greenwich Theatre in London.
But how does filming a drama on stage benefit pupils? For the productions’ director Elizabeth Freestone the main aim was to create unfussy interpretations: “It was a case of clarity predominating, creating shows in which both the in situ audience and those seeing the dramas on film would have a clear idea of the world of the plays.”
Freestone knows that some key ingredients will be lost to those downloading the edited versions from YouTube. But she says it is a boon for pupils to be able to see actors’ faces and gestures in close-up as they speak or react to others’ words.
“The Stage on Screen productions feature top actors,” says Steve Eaton Evans, head of performing arts at Queen’s College Taunton, “and there’s enough of the theatrical even in the edited versions to give students a perspective on a play they are reading in class – added to which the DVDs also feature interviews with the director, production and lighting designers.”
Another benefit is that, unlike many modern productions of the classics, Stage on Screen productions are rarely cut, putting pupils who see them at a distinct advantage.
Shakespeare Bulletin Review
In theatre, timing is everything and Stage on Screen’s recent productions have it down to a T. Not only are a few of the neglected gems of the early modern period brought to life, Stage on Screen have also made a valuable contribution to the current widening of theatrical transmission beyond the stage. Whilst the National Theatre Live broadcasts its stage productions internationally using advanced special effects and camera angles to translate live ephemeral performances into cinema, Stage on Screen’s understated use of technology captures and enhances the work of the Greenwich Theatre performances and preserves them for repeated viewing. Combined with a website that provides information on the historical and critical background of the plays, as well as cast, crew, costume and set designs, along with an interactive forum for further discussion, these DVDs provide a variety of exciting new teaching resources.
Stage on Screen’s production of Volpone literally laughs in the face of those who would still label Jonson Shakespeare’s inferior, especially in regards to comedy. The play’s magnificent humour fizzes and sparkles amidst its darkly satiric commentary on emergent capitalism and the degeneration of social, familial, moral and legal codes. Richard Bremmer’s wickedly charismatic Volpone is captured in carefully angled shots and momentary close-ups that allow the screen audience to witness his silent “flux[es] of laughter” during Mosca’s mockery of the deaf Corbaccio and the subtle extension of his middle finger when his supposedly weak hands are manoeuvred before the court to indicate his inability to “stroke a lady’s breasts.” Yet the poetic judgements of the play are retained as long shots of the judges, situated in the uppers during the court cases, create a sense of distance between both the main characters on the stage itself and the audience, demanding – as Jonson did – that spectators all recognise themselves in the primary performers and learn the same lessons. Throughout, both via Elizabeth Freestone’s directorial choices, which make superb use of what we know about early modern theatrical practices, and in its careful rendering for DVD by Stage on Screen, the multifaceted and thought-provoking work characteristic of Jonson shines.
Stage on Screen’s Duchess of Malfi opens upon a crowded and solemnly ceremonial funeral to close with a lingering shot of a bare and blood-soaked stage, which effectively frames the progressive spread of “death and disease through the whole land” when the nation’s fonts of power are “poisoned near the head.” Malfi, however, does not quite live up to the standards of Volpone. Malfi’s potency originates in Webster’s taut eloquence, where language works harder than action to strike its audience’s hearts, and from the spirited dignified Duchess who “stains time past, lights the time to come.” Neither of these are showcased here to their greatest effect. Frequent long-shots distance the audience from the characters, limiting access to facial expressions, and draw attention not to the crucial notion that the world is a stage but that the stage is its own world. Darkly dominant close-ups of the madmen threaten to overdramatise their comically traumatic appearance in act four, yet the shock of the Duchess’s discovery of Antonio and her children’s waxwork corpses is again minimised by a long shot that scarcely illuminates the bodies or her reaction. The screenwork here is in line with the essence of the performance, itself too much reliant on loud outbursts that do little to distinguish the traditionally self-possessed Duchess from the ranting malcontent Bosola, the loquaciously helpless Antonio, the hysterical Cariola or the violent passions of the brothers: the lycanthropic Ferdinand who would throttle his own shadow and the avaricious Cardinal who smothers his former mistress with a poisoned Bible. Whilst a few close shots bring out human touches – Julia’s genuine pity for her husband, the Cardinal’s affection for his sister, and Ferdinand’s infatuation – lending fresh depth to previous interpretations of this play, the overall effect both on stage and on screen diminishes the admirableness of the Duchess to the extent that Webster’s macabre snapshot of society is entirely without hope or relief.
Doctor Faustus, however, is another example of Stage on Screen excelling. With Freestone’s production set upon a circular stage designed like a library with a semi-circular tier of uppers, Stage on Screen use a plethora of clever camera angles to mark the play’s evolution. Beginning with mid-range and distance shots, interspersed with poignant close-ups, the camera moves increasingly near to the stage so that by the end the long-shots are few and a multitude of claustrophobic close-ups demonstrate Faustus’s entrapment within his small circle of knowledge and by his bargain with the Devil. The limitlessness of the devil’s domain is conveyed through intermittent high and low camera angles that alternately turn the two levels of the stage into heaven, hell and earth according to Mephistopheles’s perception that to be “deprived of everlasting bliss” is to be tormented by “ten thousand hells.” Crucially, the charming Schadenfreude humour and sulkiness of Mephistopheles and the juvenile delight of the rebellious young Faustus are also displayed in glimpses of their respective smirks, eye-rolls and grins, as the camera reproduces their on-stage chemistry and oscillating master-servant, friend and foe relationship. This DVD brilliantly displays the dynamism of Freestone’s imaginative decisions and the horror and humour of Marlowe’s early work.
With these three highly individual productions, Stage on Screen accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: “to capture the performance without interfering in any way with the theatrical experience.” The main DVDs are essential watching in their own right and Stage on Screen’s carefully thought out Library and Education packs additionally provide remarkable resources for those teaching English, Drama and Media. Pitched perfectly to suit both casual and academic audiences, Stage on Screen offers an unparalleled array of material on these productions that will be a welcome addition to those who wish to study early modern dramatists other than Shakespeare.
Briony Frost (University of Exeter).
Video Librarian reviews The Duchess of Malfi Education Pack
Called “the best single all-around source of video information available” (USA Public Libraries Association), Video Librarian has been the review publication of choice among librarians for over 20 years. Here is their review of The Duchess of Malfi Education Pack from Stage on Screen:
John Webster’s 1612 tragedy is one of the few regularly performed Jacobean dramas not written by Shakespeare. The play itself is a 17th-century horror show, with strangling, infanticide, stabbing, and poisoning among the means of murder employed in the tale of a noble heiress destroyed, along with some of her children, by her brothers, one an unscrupulous fortune hunter and the other a lascivious churchman, because she rashly married her steward
Structurally, The Duchess of Malfi is a ramshackle piece spread over five acts, but the language is memorable, and Bosola, the vengeance-seekers instrument of violence, who ultimately turns on his employers, is a fascinating character. In this 2010 staging at London’s Greenwich Theatre, Tim Treloar stands out as Bosola among the solid cast, with Aislin McGuckin in the title role. While the decision to situate the action at the beginning of World War II is debatable, the stark setting and costume design are striking, and the fluid camerawork enhances the effect. What makes this release especially notable, however, is its educational value, thanks to a pair of accompanying discs: the first includes interviews with director Elizabeth Freestone, the major actors, and production staff members; the second features the whole play seen from a single perspective, allowing every directorial choice to be studied. The related website also includes a downloadable copy of the text. Other titles in this excellent series include Doctor Faustus, The School for Scandal, and Volpone.
Highly recommended, especially for libraries serving theater departments.
Praise for Stage on Screen from Simon Dowling at Colchester Royal Grammar School
I would like to add to the praise for your innovative and stimulating project. We have used your DVD of Doctor Faustus extensively with our Year 13 English Literature students; their exam results have been excellent, and part of that is due to the unique dimension your material adds to their learning.
With best wishes for your continued success,
Head of English & Drama
Colchester Royal Grammar School
Lexden Road, Colchester CO3 3ND
Open University to take on The Duchess of Malfi
Stage on Screen are pleased to announce that the Open University will be using extensive clips from our Duchess of Malfi recording in their forthcoming new English literature course, A230 – Reading and studying literature.
The DVD, to be produced by the Open University, includes in depth interviews with our Director, Elizabeth Freestone and several of our leading actors, and also a re-creation of the rehearsals for several key scenes.
Stage on Screen now selling around the world
Building on the successful launch in the UK, Stage on Screen have built partnerships with several major distributors in the US and Canada, Australia, and Taiwan. In the US we are now being distributed by Kino Lorber Education, in Australia by Kanopy, and in Taiwan by the SCC Corporation.
We have agreed an exclusive deal with Kino Lorber for the distribution in the US and Canada of all our Education and Library packs. If you would like to order one of these, together with a public performance rights licence, please go to www.kinolorberedu.com.
We will be launching the feature packs in the US, via our main US distributor, The MVD Entertainment Group, in June 2011.
“Stage on Screen is what you need for your classroom” ...
“a gem of a resource”
Stage on Screen receives an enthusiastic review from ISTA, the International Schools Theatre Association.
In the review of our Doctor Faustus DVD, Fenella Kelly, a staff member and former trustee of ISTA, provides both an overview of the play and the extras DVD, and a warm endorsement of the project , especially the “Green Room” education area.
ISTA Review (PDF 1.21MB)
“Stage on Screen ought to have a tangible impact on how early modern drama is taught.”
Stage on Screen receives a warm review and an in-depth interview in the December issue of Viewfinder magazine, the in-house journal of the British Universities Film & Video council.
To read the full article, which covers not only the project as a whole, but also the production processs, click on the PDF below.
Viewfinder Article (PDF 8.47MB)
Some reviews of the DVDs
‘Seeing plays performed live in the theatre setting is the best way for students to understand and interact with inspirational literature. But taking a whole class to a performance isn’t always practical. Stage on Screen have stepped in to the breach with their innovative DVDs of classic plays.’
IB WORLD, THE INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE MAGAZINE
‘An excellent teaching resource…In both productions director Elizabeth Freestone makes imaginative decisions that can be held up as exemplars in the drama classroom….What Stage on Screen brings to the table is the quality of the filmed experience….a tremendous stimulus for students.‘
TEACHING DRAMA MAGAZINE
‘Directed with great clarity of narration and diction by Elizabeth Freestone…Stage on Screen ought to have a tangible impact on how early modern drama is taught.’
VIEWFINDER MAGAZINE, THE JOURNAL OF THE BRITISH UNIVERSITIES FILM AND VIDEO COUNCIL
‘These DVDs are a Godsend, and English Departments should go and order them immediately.‘
THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE TEACHING OF ENGLISH
‘I think these DVDs are brilliant. People who are teaching this would be crazy not to buy it’
THE ENGLISH AND MEDIA CENTRE
‘By golly was I impressed‘
‘The Special Edition Teacher Pack offers fascinating education and training add-ons….I think Stage on Screen is breaking new ground and deserves to succeed.‘
‘Top of the Pops chief takes theatre into the classroom.‘
LONDON EVENING STANDARD
Volpone Play Reviews
‘The two leads have the makings of a delicious double act, Bremmer snuffling with mirth into his ginger furs as Hadfield makes boobies of the avaricious hypocrites with easy wit.‘
‘Richly engaging…especially Mark Hadfield, whose energetically lugubrious turn is the show’s greatest pleasure.‘
‘Brilliantly produced…Costumes and set design are outstanding…Richard Bremmer and Mark Hadfield were wonderful as the scheming Volpone and Mosca.’
‘Joyful and highly amusing production…outstanding performances throughout.’
The Duchess Of Malfi Play Reviews
‘The best spoken, most intelligently staged and thrillingly effective Malfi I’ve seen in years.‘
‘Much of the pleasure of this revival lies in re-encountering Webster’s language…full of savage poetry.‘
‘the beautiful and the macabre are perfectly balanced…Visually, the production is entrancing.’
Doctor Faustus Play Reviews
‘Atmospheric…diabolically convincing…flashes of fiery poetry…directed with laudable clarity by Elizabeth Freestone’
‘Gareth Kennerley is magnificent in the huge role of Faustus’
‘The production succeeded in bringing this dramatic poem to life and kept an audience rapt‘
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
‘Impeccably directed by Elizabeth Freestone and imaginatively filmed by outside broadcast director Chris Cowey…it is extremely watchable and really does give you the best of both worlds – the advantages of close up shots and the sense of being at a live performance.’
The School for Scandal Play Reviews
‘It is a delight! A production to relish…you know this is going to be fun.‘
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
Stage pictures are used beautifully to communicate with the audience‘
TEACHING DRAMA MAGAZINE
‘By golly, was I impressed’
‘The production moves at breakneck speed, but never at the expense of comic dialogue.’
THE SCHOOL LIBRARY ASSOCIATION