Close Up From A Distance; Is ‘In-Camera’ The Future of Live Theatre?
Last week, London’s Old Vic has run a string of performances of Duncan Macmillan’s ‘Lungs’ in-camera. The actors Clare Foy and Matt Smith performed live on stage, albeit socially distanced, to an empty auditorium, with cameras streaming their performance to 1000 home-based, paying viewers, replicating the Old Vic’s auditorium capacity.
This is a whole new experience for a Covid ravaged theatre industry trying to find a way to sustain itself amid a socially distanced new normal. Some scripts, like Macmillan’s Lungs, are unknowingly made for these kinds of restrictions, with no costumes, no set changes, and no interval. It is about as easy as it gets to adapt to these conditions.
But rather than record this in a traditional front to stage camera set up, Director Matthew Warchus has added a split-screen camera view. So, while Smith and Foy are on the same stage, each is shot independently. Warchus uses this split-screen as a directional device, and it creates interesting layers of viewing. One moment we are in close to Foy’s face, next moment we see only Smith’s crossed legs. These oblique angles and cropped shots are unsettling, emphasizing the increasing divide between the characters and highlighting details we may never pay much attention to ordinarily when taking in the entirety of the traditional mis-en -scene. There’s a poignancy that is gained through this technique which suits the theme and tone of the piece.
The in-camera approach works because the play is a deeply intimate view of a couple grappling with the question of whether to have a child, then moving to the angst of a relationship on the brink.
It makes sense for the viewer to be close, to notice the subtleties of response, seeing emotion play out through gesture, expression, and body language.
While the UK’s National Theatre has previously developed its own ground-breaking project National Theatre Live, that broadcasts its spectacular pre-recorded theatre productions in cinemas in the UK and internationally, Old Vic: In Camera is a new initiative, and requires a simplified and slimmed down production, to enable the show to be performed live with current safety guidelines.
With a sell-out season, audiences are clearly prepared to support this new world. Can this be the future of live theatre?
Interestingly, The Old Vic offered a variety of ticket prices for this show, just like they would in any normal season, with differently priced seats. No doubt the demand was driven by the popularity of Macmillan and Warchus as well as the calibre and profile of Foy and Smith.
The success of this show raises the question of whether this could be the way forward for the theatre industry, at least in the short to medium term, when social distancing is likely to be in place, at least to some degree, for the foreseeable future. And while the effects of Covid- 19 have been disastrous for our arts industry globally, this could be a way for theatre companies to continue to offer live productions, and bring in desperately needed income, while helping to support the broader network of artists and theatre workers.