This week, I went along to my first National Theatre Live broadcast, and the 'theatre via cinema' experience is definitely one I will be repeating.
On Thursday evening, National Theatre Live beamed out 'Hedda Gabler' to cinemas nationally, and I took up my seat full of anticipation.
I first came across Hedda Gabler while studying GCSE drama, and it's been on my 'need to see' list ever since. Widely agreed to host one of the very best female dramatic leads, the casting of Ruth Wilson in the role had me intrigued and confident it would be an impressive performance of Ibsen's classic.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the 'theatre at the cinema' concept, and I think I had assumed a camera would be set up as if you were a member of the audience in the theatre itself.
In fact, the National Theatre Live experience is a completely separate experience all of its own. Yes, there are moments where you see the whole stage and are aware of the live audience, but through most of the play it's more like watching a film, just one performed live. The camera angles change regularly, and pivotal moments are zoomed in on. The broadcast had clearly been plotted out very carefully, and every camera movement skillfully built up the picture of the whole performance.
Although you didn't get the intimacy of being IN the auditorium, you experienced a different kind of intimacy. The opportunity to be right up close to a character in their most intense and dramatic moments added a whole new layer of experience to the production.
In addition to this, there are two short films to enjoy as a cinema audience. Just before the show was one about how the National Theatre commissions and develops works, and just before the second half was a short film featuring the director and actors, sort of a 'the making of' featurette.
I can't not mention the fact there was one slight technical blip - in a pivotal moment, just as Hedda is asked 'Where is the manuscript?' the screen went green. For about 3 or 4 minutes. I've got to admit this really broke the spell, and we were a bit gutted to have missed a few minutes, as it's not like a normal film where you could have picked up from where it cut out! However, it wasn't enough to really disrupt my overall enjoyment of the evening.
And the show itself?
I was completely captivated.
The show has been brought up to date, set in a sort of loft apartment, presented in a way that demonstrated the fact all the issues from Ibsen's original play are still applicable today. Ruth Wilson, in the short film at the interval, described the sense that instead of being trapped in a man's world, as is the common interpretation of the play, the characters were trapped within their own minds. This angle played out very well in the production.
Ruth Wilson's Hedda was flawless. She handled the boredom, passion and the manipulation of this woman with apparent ease, and she's such a striking presence on the stage it was hard to look away from her. I also thought her voice work was outstanding; a deep, commanding voice that flitted easily between apathy, annoyance, petulance and anger. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she was alone on stage, where without words her every emotion was made clear.
Rafe Spall played a menacing Brack, who from his first moment on stage was an impressive figure. He embodied the 'playboy' role well, with a sinister edge, and his climactic scenes in the second half were truly intimidating and powerful. The Bloody Mary moment (I'll say no more in case you've got tickets booked to see the show) was particularly awful - in the best possible way.
I think my other favourite, if I were to give a top three, would by Mrs Elvstead, played by Sinead Matthews. When reading and studying the play I had always dismissed it as quite a boring part, as elements of her character just seem so simpering and pathetic. This is true to an extent, but Matthews fleshed out the character and we commented on the way home that it was easy to forget she was an actress at all; it was just Mrs Elvstead appearing before us. In body and voice she transformed into character fully, and really developed a part that could otherwise just pass an audience by as a storytelling vehicle.
Ivo Van Hove has really pulled it out of the bag with his direction of this production of Hedda Gabler. My expectations were high and they were surpassed, with brilliant staging, an accomplished cast, and a reframing of a story I thought I already knew.