Can the theatre really be transported from its current location and find a more available, yet distant, home on the big screen?
Since the National Theatre launched NT Live almost ten years ago in order to broadcast plays to cinemas across the world, debates have sparked regarding the future of theatre in a digital age, with traditionalists arguing that some of the unique energy of live performance is diluted when streamed. A screening of Benedict Andrews’ bland interpretation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, however, proves quite the opposite.
The production itself is a shameless battering of Tennessee Williams’ nuanced and vibrant dialogue into monotonous melodrama. Sienna Miller is a hammy and humdrum Maggie, whose repeated wails of ‘Big Daddy is dying of cayuncuh!’ are countered by Jack O’Connell’s dubious accent (‘Keep yer voice doon, Maggeh’) which, I realise halfway through, is meant to be Southern American as opposed to Glaswegian. Evidently, NT live isn’t the problem – if anything it is a redeeming feature: the camera draws attention, for instance, towards brilliant supporting actors.
The character of Big Mama, while given comparatively little air time in the 1958 film adaptation, is a highlight of this production: Lisa Palfrey’s characterisation adds moments of lightness with her nasal, wheedling voice and well-meaning but utterly tactless blunderings. The direction is poor, though: Andrews’ response to a dragging scene is to have Brick (O’Connell) strip his clothes off for no apparent reason. At one point, Big Mama inexplicably begins to destroy her husband’s birthday cake in what seems like a half baked (pardon the pun) attempt to create a satisfyingly messy stage for the exhausted cast to take their self-deprecating bows on.
Evidently, NT live isn’t the problem – if anything it is a redeeming feature: the camera draws attention, for instance, towards brilliant supporting actors.
The blending of cinematic and theatrical technique is fascinating, however: the camera is not just stuck in the audience and left alone for three hours but is used as an opportunity to experiment with presentation of the action. The audience’s gaze is drawn across the gleaming bronze walls of Magda Willi’s stunning set design, closing in on the dishevelled loveless bed, the drinks cabinet, the intimidating vanity table where a troubled Southern belle can dab powder on herself (a favourite motif of Benedict Andrews, echoing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in his production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2014).
The set is crucial, representing the disintegrating marriage at the heart of the drama; Maggie treats the space like her husband, one minute throwing bottles at the smooth, impenetrable walls, the next pressing her naked body against it. Some of the most memorable moments are the striking visual tableaus created by the camera, for instance Maggie standing topless against the back wall of the stage, her husband Brick tastefully blocking her from view.
The camera also enhances the nature of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a closed-space domestic drama – the audience’s feeling of being a fly on the wall are magnified by the addition of a lens. This voyeurism is pertinent to the narrative of the play, which is preoccupied by walls with ears and a suffocating lack of privacy for the characters. The audience are also reminded of their own officiousness, changing the viewing experience on a cerebral level as we question our role in a theatre.
Leaving the cinema after a somewhat unpleasant three hours is a relief but has taught me one thing: there are times when screening a play does not threaten but enhances theatre. In this case at least, rather than ruining the magic of live performance, the camera deftly and stylishly improves it – like a flattering shot of Jack O’Connell naked from behind.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons