Recently I went to a cinema screening of Danny Boyle’s theatre production of Frankenstein, beamed live from the National Theatre. It was a decent enough reworking of Shelley’s novel, the highlight being Benedict ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Cumberbatch’s incredibly physical portrayal of the monster. But as a watching experience it was somewhat awkward – a strange interaction between two cousins of the cultural world. A play was being acted out, live on stage, but our view of it was mediated by someone editing the cinema product, selecting shots from a range of available angles and choosing when to cut between them.
I ended up thinking that what I’d really like to have seen is a Danny Boyle Frankenstien film. And this led me to consider my response to these two mediums in general: what was it that had determined my obsession with cinema whilst my reaction to theatre never progressed beyond indifference? Both, after all, involve sitting in a room for a couple of hours and watching a narrative unfold through sight and sound. Here’s what I concluded, in the form of a ludicrous extended metaphor:
Theatre feels to me like a pair of chopsticks to cinema’s fork. I’m not nearly as adept with chopsticks as I am with a fork – but neither have I had much inclination to engage with them, since forks have always been so much more rewarding. It’s true that chopsticks have been around for longer and carry a kind of noble, romantic quality; ultimately however I fail to see what exactly they offer that a fork doesn’t. Everything chopsticks do can also be done more efficiently by a fork – and there’s a whole range of things a fork can do that chopsticks simply can’t.
To abandon the metaphor, and to expand: theatre, I find, is hugely restricted by its unavoidably static nature. In the vast majority of productions, once a scene is set up, that’s it – we’ll see everything from that angle and in that set space until the lights go down and someone changes it. Contrast this with cinema, in which the camera can move in and around, underneath or above characters, follow them as they move through landscapes, or switch to a different scene completely and back again in an instant. Theatre can replicate some of this with clever staging, but it’s a lot more difficult and lot more conspicuous.
Theatre is purported to be the arena for great acting; in fact an actor’s performance is the thing I find most affected by this issue of fixed space. Governed by the unchanging distance of the audience, theatre acting is rendered ‘stagey’ – exaggerated, physical and not very realistic. Nothing wrong with that style per se (you get it in films too), but its necessity means theatre lacks the variety demanded by cinema, where an actor might be the merest blip on the horizon in one moment and have the camera centimetres from his face the next.
Thus, even a good theatre production never quite involves me in the same way a film can – there’s something too wordy, too artificial and too formulaic about the whole thing. Cinema has a wonderful way of communicating a world of meaning in a single shot or betraying an emotion with the tiniest flicker of an actor’s eye. Can something similar happen in a play? And does it work the other way round – are there things that theatre can do that cinema is unable to?
I think you can do more with a film. It provides a broader palette from which artists can work, and this makes it a more interesting medium to watch. Is that too reductive? Have I seen all the wrong plays? If you have reasons to put me right about theatre – or chopsticks, for that matter – please let me know.