Cinema vs. Theatre

Shit, Sherlock

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.

Listening, perhaps

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.

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13 Responses to Cinema vs. Theatre

  1. rich says:

    It’s the “acting” side of things that annoys me with theatre, too. I wish they’d all calm down and stop being so over the top.

    Although… David Tennant does it on screen (TV). But then he’s thought of as a great “actor” of the theatre kind isn’t he? I find watching him exhausting and unpleasant.

  2. JohnnyEvo says:

    Great post Jamie!

    I find the debate between film and theatre a reductive one though in that you may as well throw books and music into the same argument for how they are similar and what they deal with best.

    I think it is an easy comparison in terms of that they both involve actors and they roughly last the same amount of time. That is about it.

    Film (and I do love film) is a directors medium. As you point out the ‘camera’ (director) can go all in out and around actors. It can show you the view across snow capped mountains or show a twitch in a character’s eye. And that is important to remember, it shows you these things. Film is by its very nature restrictive and dictatorial for the viewer and for what it matters, the actor. In a break up scene between lovers, you might identify with the hurt character but are forced by the Director (or editor, or the fact that piece of film was over exposed, or there was boom in shot) to watch the person breaking it off. You have no choice.

    In theatre you can watch what you want when you want and this is one of the great freedoms and rewards of theatre. It may not show you the mountain but if it is good, the character will tell you about a mountain with such passion and connection that you will see it clearly in your mind.

    That is the big difference. Film is a passive medium, it happens despite you as an audience member. Film is a set pace and clearly lays out the plot before you and where it is set regardless of what you want. Theatre is created in the connection between the actor and the audience member. They feed off each other and create the tension and joy as real as any other medium. This why it is exciting and rewarding when it is good and unbearable and infuriating when it is bad.

    I think the most important point to say is that you saw a piece of art in a medium it was never designed for. That is why it looked so bad. Theatre (or any live performance) always dies when filmed as the connection to the audience is lost. If you have ever seen a recording of a speech, gig or theatre show that you have attended the best you can hope for is that it reminds you of the feelings you had at the time..It will never be the same.

    By allowing people to watch a live feed of Frankenstein the National Theatre have created a monster.

    • JamieR says:

      Thanks Johnny! Great comment. You’re quite right about the comparison, of course. I suppose I was simply interested (in true self-absorbed blogger style) in why one medium managed to provoke and excite me so much more than the other.

      I’ve heard the participatory/interactive line about theatre before but you’ve described it such a way as to lead me to suspect I’m not watching theatre properly.

      I suppose some of us prefer experiencing the final product as chosen by the director/cinematographer/editor (i.e. film), whereas others are more stimulated by the onus theatre places on an audience.

      I wouldn’t say I ever feel quite ‘dictated to’ in a cinema; more that I’m aware of those choices made that you describe and enjoy thinking about the reasons behind them and my reactions to them. There’s still room for intellectual manoeuvre when watching film, even if you can’t alter the film itself.

  3. Oli Mansell says:

    I would err on the side of saying you’ve maybe been unfortunate in the plays you’ve seen … as I’m not sure you’re comparing apples with apples! 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong – I’d concede that sometimes people have tried to translate stories from the theatre to cinema (or vice versa) and not done so very well … an example being the film of The History Boys, which I couldn’t stand. Something about the dialogue and the whole premise just seemed really… contrived. But then last year I saw a production of it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – with low expectations – and it just seemed to click: I loved it. Granted, two different people were responsible for the script/screenplay in each case, but I think each medium demands a different kind of writing which I can’t (currently) quite put into words…

    • JamieR says:

      Someone said exactly the same thing to me today about the film version of The History Boys. I only saw the play, and I liked. For James Corden it’s been downhill from there…

  4. Maria says:

    I don’t like being far away from the stage at the theatre, as I like to see the expression in the eyes and to sense all the other minutiae. Last night we saw a Mike Leigh play (written in 1979), but we were upstairs and, partly because of this, I didn’t really enjoy it. However, when I am up close, I think that having people expressing the emotion live is gripping.

    Funnily enough, in the Observer Review yesterday Leigh compared film with theatre and said that for every film he had walked out of, he had walked out of 500 plays. A bit of an exaggeration, I assume!

  5. zed says:

    Why the comparison? Both can be great and both can be terrible. What I like about theatre is the fact of a group of actors performing a ‘story’ live, in front of me. There’s something awe inspiring, sometimes, about theatre being this live medium, with its immediacy, and it’s staggering to think that the actors are doing this six times a week, sometimes for many weeks/months. With a film, though all the positives that Jamie refers to are sometimes true, I know that it is very often made up of multiple fragments, filmed independently and then spliced together. Is it therefore a product primarily of the actors (as in the theatre) or a product of the technicians and director? That’s OK but it’s different to a play, played out live, in a theatre.

  6. Toby says:

    I think from an acting point of view you have to slightly exaggerate things when on stage so that you can fill the space. On the other hand, when shot for cinema you need to make the performance smaller as the scale will make any large actions look unnaturally exaggerated.

    • b+w geezer says:

      Indeed; and it’s an increasing problem with actors trained with TV/film in mind that they can’t always cope with those demands of theatre, nor in projecting their voice (not to be confused with shouting).

      What’s authentic and what’s ‘artificial’ in gesture or expression isn’t cut and dried. Those of us who’ve arrived here from a football site should consider what we look like when a goal is scored or (head in hands) missed. Are our baroque gestures due to our theatrical or operatic training? Are we putting on an act? Confining ourselves to a wry smile would for sure be cuter…..but more real??

      • JamieR says:

        It’s an interesting comparison to make. I suppose another point is that the way we behave as audience at football is akin to what might have gone on at the Globe in the 17th century: encouraging or expressing disapproval (in a way a modern theatre audience never would) and in doing so actually influencing the performance of the ‘players’ on display.

        Perhaps a lot of theatre is too staid? Thinking of football ground, it’s much easier to understand the ‘interaction’ between performers and audience that Johnny describes above. When he says this:

        Theatre is created in the connection between the actor and the audience member. They feed off each other and create the tension and joy as real as any other medium. This why it is exciting and rewarding when it is good and unbearable and infuriating when it is bad.

        I recognise my experience at Craven Cottage every other Saturday. Hmm. Not only is football our modern day church – it’s our theatre!

        • b+w geezer says:

          Yup. The former’s a matter of taste (not mine FWIW), the latter more assured. It’s at any rate a form of theatre, the genre being so varied over time and space as to burst the boundaries of the contrast you set up. Think ancient Greece, think other cultures, think musical/opera versus plain speech, think proscenium arch v. studio/in-the-round, etc. etc. The comments of others above are endorsable too.

          Specifically on the gestural aspect, you may have seen Wayne Rooney, banished to the stands, a spectator at the FA Cup semi final. His teammate Berbatov missed an open goal (with fatal results as it transpired) and the camera panned to Wayne clutching his forehead, anguish all over his face. The bloke isn’t RADA trained and is not usually described as a ‘luvvie’ — it just came out that way…..and which homo sapien would have failed to comprehend?

          In a TV interview on the topic, Mr Rooney would doubtless have mumbled something about being ‘disappointed’ conveying negligible meaning or, more to the point, truth. However, a savvy director could of course make meaningful film out such stuff — and indeed opening sequences of football programmes often do so. So let’s not get too hung up on medium per se, only one part of the story.

      • zed says:

        Playing with the idea of a football match as theatre is exactly my experience and I would stress that the ‘actors’ involved in creating this performance are just as much the crowd as the players. Some of the funniest, most inventive and most passionate parts of the ‘play’ are the fans’ heckles, chants and songs, especially demonstrated at away matches which the more committed and vocal fans are likely to go to. This degree of ‘audience’ participation can happen at a football match because to some large degree the play on the pitch can go on regarless – to have anything approaching the same degree and volume of participation in a theatre would be impossible as it would overwhelme what is taking place on the stage.

  7. Dom says:

    Try watching a production of Closer. It works so much better on stage! May not be your cup of tea (it isn’t mine) but you’ll see how different conventions work in different mediums and how they don’t work.

    Theatre is a unique experience. It will never be the same as it was the night before or the night after no matter how professional. Each performance can have something extra and something missing. With a film I always get the feeling that i’m seeing what everyone else saw. With theatre everyone will have a different perspective of each show literally. As an actor theatre is or can be a mutually active experience. The more you invest in the actors the more you’ll get out of it. Film is something you can watch and still enjoy without putting in too much effort. It depends what you’re in the mood for. There are times you don’t want to engage with people and times you do. Personal preference at the end of the day. You can’t really compare them as competitors creatively but can find strong connections between them both.

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