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The Play's the Film

As a graduate of Film Studies, Holly highlights the differences of viewer experiences of theatre in its various forms: from live attendance, fixed recordings of stage productions, and adaptations specific to the silver screen.

Holly Parsons

I joined the Trust as Library and Archive Assistant at the beginning of November, and as a Film Studies graduate (and former cinema usher!), I am keen that my first blog should encompass my interests in cinema and spectatorship studies. In the coming months I hope to discover interesting links between cinema, theatre, and performance of the works of William Shakespeare.

The Royal Shakespeare Company archive includes video recordings of most plays staged since 1982. Where previously researchers would have been required to perform an imaginative reconstruction of a performance based on secondary evidence such as promptbooks, photographs and set and costume designs, they can now see all of these elements in action on stage. Of course, certain sensory aspects of the physical experience of theatre spectatorship are inevitably ephemeral and cannot be captured in a video recording. The RSC archive videos are filmed with a fixed camera and to some extent construct an imagined spectator, a person who was never there. We might think about how camera placement, sound quality, and other technical factors position the viewer in relation to the filmed performance.

As well as distinguishing between the experience of audience members and the limited perspective of the archive video, we can also begin to explore the differences between a filmed performance and a film adaptation. Whereas the RSC archive videos aim merely to document the live performance, adapting a stage production for the screen requires a translation into the specific language of the new medium. The RSC’s 2008 production of Hamlet makes an interesting case study, as it was adapted for television by the BBC in 2009.

Hamlet David Tennant DVD
Cover of the film version of David Tennant's "Hamlet" (Credit to the RSC)

As RSC actor Keith Osborn wrote in his blog, this “was not to be a simple film record of what we’d finished six months earlier, nor would it be a blockbuster movie version…” (p.224). Director Gregory Doran aimed to create a world of ”vivid neutrality” (p.225), retaining the theatricality of the original production through the use of stylised sets while employing specifically cinematic devices in a highly effective fashion. For example, David Tennant’s Hamlet uses a hand-held Super 8 movie camera to film Claudius’ response to the performance of The Mousetrap, and the viewpoint of this camera is included in the scene. CCTV camera footage is also cut into the main action to enhance the atmosphere of paranoia and surveillance (p.225).

We are fortunate to have in our archives the promptbook and archive video for the original production, as well as the shooting script from and DVD of the BBC adaptation. A more detailed comparison of the two versions would make a fascinating project for future researchers.

Keith Osborn – Something Written in the State of Denmark – An Actor’s Year with the Royal Shakespeare Company, London: Oberon Books, 2010.