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Emotionally charged HD screenings are crossing the 2D dimension

‘Cat on the Hot Tin Roof’ (recording of the Young Vic at the West End production) and ‘La Bohème’ (Live from the Metropolitan Opera): screenings at the Barbican Centre in February 2018

Two great screenings of wonderful pieces of theatre and opera took place in February in Barbican cinemas 2 (‘Cat on the Hot Tin Roof’) and 1 (for ‘La Bohème’). And while at previous screenings I felt I would have preferred to actually be there among the real-life audiences, this time I knew it was impossible. The Young Vic production was on London stage in July-August 2017, while The Met Opera is too far away to consider an outing. However, both experiences proved to be so fulfilling one felt the substitution of screen for stage was working fine and helping in understanding the nuances of acting, staging and singing.

The screening on 22th February 2018 was a theatre performance of a famous Tennesee Williams play ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ from Young Vic (West End transferral). It is another collaboration of an Australian director Benedict Andrews with the theatre, and as its artistic manager David Lan steps down this year, it is not certain that it will continue. Now I think about my experience at Young Vic, it is productions by Andrews (‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Streetcar Named Desire’) that stand out as the strongest ones in my memory. ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ was also an enourmous success during its run, and the screening allows some new audiences who had not managed to get into it, to enjoy the work of Andrews on another Williams classic with an exceptional cast. Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell who are better known as film stars play the leading roles of Maggie and Brick, while Lisa Palfrey and Colm Meaney play Big Mama and Big Daddy (parents of Brick) respectively. Brian Gleeson plays Brick’s brother Gooper, and Hayley Squires plays his wife Mae, with five children being played by a varied group of youngsters.

Andrews sets the production in modern times – everything happens in a lavish, brown-coloured room which is so minimalistically furnished it indeed looks very posh and expensive (design by Magda Willi). The bedding of sofa that is located on the left of this enourmously huge room is probably silk, and the colours are extravagant brownish and black, while on the right there is a small table with a mirror where Maggie repeatedly looks at herself in the mirror and embellishes the face and the neck. Gorgeous bouquets of flowers are near the bed and on this table, while a huge golden background (light by Jon Clark) makes its presence at the back of this room and over the whole stage. This is also very important – this background that gets different shades of light and also some kind of sparkles of fire inside occasionally powerfully represent so many different things here. This is a golden cage (and money and lust for it, and fear to lose it and the power associated with it informs the actions of many characters here), and it is also a hot roof where desires are burning so impossibly that the only solution would be to jump off it if that was possible. It is also the colour of ‘liqueur’ (whisky perhaps) that becomes Brick’s only salvation – and the cabinet and ice are just there in front of this room, not covered by any furniture. Everything is bare and open in this production, and it makes it very erotic, powerful and charged with lurking emotions from the very beginning. Williams mentions that there is a gallery running along the room, and Andrews makes a decision to expose this space to any kinds of unexpected and unwanted comings and goings – children could sing and do fireworks at the back, May or Big Mama could come or eavesdrop at any time, and that makes the rhythm of the production quick, brisk, hurried, as the characters know they must speak now and press their partner (usually Brick) to speak in response unless there would be a new interruption.

Andrews works with his actors so as to reveal their constant need to speak that actually serves both a channel and a shield from something that gnaws on them, burns them inside. This golden-red roof of Williams – it burns all the characters in the play, they are united by this core element, though express it differently. And this is what makes this production so powerful – from the moment one we are burning with them and we are finding comfort in doing so as the characters’ internal fire is quicky associated with a similar hidden area in our own souls and consciences. This process is followed through so sincerely, so bravely by the director I wanted the production to go forever – it felt so fresh, so insightful, so close to my soul and my being, to everything in me – I genuinely don’t know how he achieved this, because I felt I was Brick, and Maggie, and Big Papa and Mama consequtively, and I even felt at some moment I was one of those abandoned ‘no-neck monsters’ that were constantly appearing in the room.

Maggie (Sienna Miller) is burning with the desire for her husband who is physically present, but absent in almost everything else, and so she circles around him, and begs, and talks, and talks as if attempting to bewitch him, to hypnotize him, but he remains a silent object, although latently the one full of negativity towards her. The first half of the show is indeniably Miller’s (and partly O’Connell’s) - she wants to talk to get what she wants or at least to understand why she doesn’t get it and she finally reaches the theme that would be the cornerstone of the play – her husband’s relationship with Skipper, his friend and his fellow American football player who had committed suicide in the past. Miller is etchy and extremely magnetizing and beautiful here, she is also wearing only her gown as her dress is shed in the beginning of the scene – it is too hot in the house, and Brick is also almost naked, with only the towel covering his legs. It would seem that these young and beautiful people are indeed preparing for an intimate scene, but it does not happen as if they are barren (and this is another thing indicated by Williams – their lack of a child) or an invisible barrier makes their relationship dry, deseased, all wrong. And so this beautiful woman is exposing herself to a beautiful man who is taking a shower in front of his wife and mother’s eyes, but this perfection of the bodies is desperately not enough here. I remembered two plays here: one is Alfred Musset's ‘On ne badine pas avec l'amour’ and another one is Arthur Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’. In the first one the possibility of love between a couple who were destined to be together is eliminated by the death of a young innocent girl they caused, and in the second one the illness is present as the result of feelings having been bottled up, and the play is the process of their painful release.

Williams explores the same thing, and it is the hardest for Brick, because he has to admit his role in the death of his friend and his homosexual longing for him in the society where it is forbidden or at least he thinks it is completely unacceptable for his manhood and sense of identity. And while he doesn’t accept it, he gradually dies in front of his family. Jack O’Connell has a lot of patience and stamina to actually just be there, to listen and not listen, to be absorbed in himself and to survive two big investations that he is subjected to: one from his wife and another one from his father. And they are both boiling down to the same warm, the same gnawing question of his guilt and disgust with himself.

The second one (and the second act, it seems, belongs to Colm Meaney who plays Big Daddy) gets him pinned down in the end, and he speaks it out, and suddenly the core of his being is there, and we see that there is nothing left in this beautiful body because he can’t turn back the past and undo what he has done. The second act is also a thorough circling around another theme – death, and the fear of it. Colm Meaney wonderfully shows another human strategy of denying the most feared thing – the bravura of an owner, the possesser, the ruler. Here is the man who in fact wants to live, to shed all his limitations of behaviour and find the things and people he actually likes: new women, new experiences, everything he can afford. As we already know he can’t, we witness this another cat on a hot tin roof who is avoiding his death and trying to silence it while circling around it. This is another incredible performance here from Meaney who exposes himself as an ageing, not extremely handsome, very egocentric, but still in some ways very powerful man searching for the ways to escape 'mendacity'. His son is too weak to cope with this world, while he thinks he actually can – now. And as in Greek tragedy, we know that all characters here are doomed to face what they fear most of. Greed of another brother and his wife is another big passion eating Williams’ characters out, although I think Hayley Squires and Brian Gleeson overdo it in showing their characters insincerity and animal greed in trying to get the best piece of the dying animal. Lisa Palfrey as Big Mama also very bravely exposes her lack of female attraction, her age and her stupidity, but she suddenly gets to her own core fear when she hears about Bid Daddy’s death – her pillar of strength is disappearing, too, and she is a weak child crying in the end of the production.

Jack O'Connell as Brick and Sienna Miller as Maggie, credits: Johan Persson

The final scene, though, is not very convincing, or may be it was meant to be like that - an impossible attempt to escape from the stiffening cage of gold and catch the source of life. Yes, the situation here mirrors the eroticism of the first half the show, but we have seen how much of a mannequin, a dummy piece of a beautiful body Brick has become so what they are about to do seems like a process of mending a broken vase for the sake of survival and probably inherited money. A possible child will be like Osvald in Ibsen’s ‘The Ghosts’ – dead from the moment of conception. So, it is a feeling of the Greek-scale and unresolved tragedy that every person in this house still faces that remains as an aftertaste, and the incredible feeling of catharsis indeed enters the mind and soul after watching this show. An incredibly powerful in its simplicity, layering the playwright's ideas magnificiently and channeling them through actors production by Andrews getting to the very core of things, as a true interpretation of a Williams classic should.

Another wonderful screening which happened at Cinema 1 at the Barbican was a live broadcast of the matinee performance of ‘La Bohème’ from the Metropolitan Opera. The broadcast indeed proved all the strength of the video recording: featured interviews with all members of the cast including the non-singing actors, gave us insights into the stage production and the difficulties of mounting this splendid and detailed period opera, a revival of the one directed by Franco Zeffirelli who also envisioned its set as a designer. It also brought wonderful voices of the singers to the viewers and gave detailed shots of the set from various angles, ranging from close-ups to broader panoramic views of the stage. We indeed felt almost nothing was missing in our experience of this opera that, as all singers admit, remains the vocalists’ favourite in Puccini’s canon as it allows them to channel their voices to the maximum through lyrical duets, quartets and solo arias.

The production (set design was by Zeffirelli himself, and costumes are by Peter J.Hall) is lavish in terms of the sets (four difficult changes for four acts) and period costumes. The first and the last act represents a house of the bohemians somewhere ‘sous les toits de Paris’ and reminds me of a famous painting by Gustave Caillebotte ‘Rooftops in the Snow’. The house seems to be flying in mid-air, against a beautiful backdrop of cloudy sky, and with this representation of painters and poets’ lives one indeed begins to believe there could be ectatic creative happiness notwithstanding poverty and misfortune here. The quartet is bohemians: Matthew Rose as Colline, Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, and two soloists Lucas Meachem as Marcello and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo – is excellently cast, as these four men are so different physically and vocally, while miraculously sharing the same dare-devil spirit and amicality. Their jokes with the landlord Benoit (sung and played by veteran of the Met, Paul Plishka) and their final awkward dances frame the whole spirit of the opera. Yes, it probably could not be like this in its entirety, but as prolific output by many poets and painters during this period in Paris tells us, it could be indeed a perfect place and atmosphere for creation and enjoyment of life despite everything. Against extraordinarily detailed, almost naturalistic background of the production, singers deliver outstanding, gorgeous vocal performances, and here two duets undeniably stand out: that of Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva as Rodolpho and Mimì, and of Lucas Meachem and Susanna Phillips as Marcello and Musetta.

The pairs of soloists both have moments for realization of their wonderful acting and vocal skills – the first being a more reserved, more romantic, more out-into-the-skies, and the second more practical, robust, enjoying-life-here-and-now. The duet of Rodolpho and Mimì when they meet is extraordinary, where voices are langorous, probing, insistent and playful, as during the minutes of this duet their love is formed to last a lifetime. Their duet in the third act, on the contrary, is full of tragism and is now filled with earned tenderness and understanding of each other, and singers extraordinary reveal these shades of emotion – from naïve adoration to tender, fully-grown love for each other. Meachem and Phillips had also the same moments of transformation but of a different kind – from playful concealment of each other’s feelings in the second act to a stormy scene in the third act. Their voices contrasted with the first pair and contributed to a wonderful vocal 4-component bouquet that was created by wonderful young singers in this production, saturated with love and lust for life as it was. The conductor Marco Armiliato led the orchestra and singers in this romantic recreation of creativity in Paris, making us believe that a certain illusion can stay powerful for a century if it touches upon our inner ideas of beauty and harmony.

Credits: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The feeling of being overwhelmed by a good work of art devised and realized by professionals on the top of their career was complemented by additional interviews giving a possibility to get the backstage view of the proceedings and see how indeed devoted and full of energy everyone (including the stage management and the non-singing actors) beyond the curtain was. Indeed, sometimes the screenings can be a wonderful substitute for a real performance, and it is extraordinary when one thinks of how many people around the world could see it together during one evening (one could get the overall impression by following the tweets about a certain production on a particular night). HD live screenings make us all global audiences of one global theatre, with its source or centre moving from one stage to another and embracing opera, ballet and theatre.

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