The Royal Ballet: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Live broadcasting has changed how audiences view theatre and performance, says Liz Schafer

January 15, 2015

The live broadcast of the Royal Ballet’s excellent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the Royal Opera House reminded me why I love live broadcasting: I can sit in my favourite cinema – the 100-year-old Alhambra in Keswick – and have the cream of mainstream opera, dance and drama on offer. I can take my daughter to see shows and not stress over whether she’ll be bored, ask questions in a loud voice, want an ice cream or crunch popcorn in the quiet bits. I shell out only £15 for my ticket, instead of the vertiginous prices charged by some London theatres. I don’t get uptight about the cost of a programme full of advertisements or worry about running for the last train and getting home at 1am when there’s school the next day. Latecomers who would risk being lynched in some theatres can meander in at will and nobody bats an eyelid.

The live broadcasts are relaxed and user-friendly; they promote audience diversity and give taxpayers across the UK the chance to see where arts subsidy funding goes. And they let anyone who can get to a local cinema see shows that are sold out in the theatre. Brilliant.

Director Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice was ideal for this kind of event. It is an accessible, narrative ballet with amazing costumes, easily recognisable characters and some Lion King meets War Horse puppetry. It opens in the gardens of Christ Church, Oxford, cleverly positioning Lewis Carroll’s novel as heading in the direction of social realism, since Oxford is clearly full of surreal characters.

Alice also combines realistic projected effects with unabashedly anti-illusionistic devices: the flamingos are long glove puppets worn on one hand by dancers dressed in pink; the caterpillar is an extended, exotic, shimmering version of a pantomime horse; we can see the puppeteers manipulating the disintegrating, reassembling, metamorphosing Cheshire Cat. But the heart of the ballet is Alice’s emotional journey as she begins to grow up, fall in love and resist parental tyranny. Sarah Lamb’s astonished jerks and spasms as her Alice shrinks or grows are emblematic of the emotional shocks and physical surprises of puberty.

I’m sure that Wheeldon’s ballet onstage, with unmediated, smelling, sweating dancers only yards away, is an invigorating experience, but in some ways the live broadcast gives the cinema audience advantages over the theatre-goers. Film can enhance the effects of the production’s sleights of hand and trompe l’oeil. When Alice becomes enormous, Lamb is crammed into a perspective box with tiny doors and dizzying sight lines. The camera goes in close, cutting out the rest of the stage, the curtains, the orchestra and the boxes that the theatre audience can still see. In the cinema, Alice appears far larger than she can to anyone in the stalls at the ROH, as she is quite literally enormous, occupying a large part of the screen. But Alice also reflects thoughtfully on the subjects of film and photography. It portrays Lewis Carroll as a magician and photographer, who distracts an upset Alice by taking pictures. His camera bag becomes the rabbit hole into which she tumbles. Is it magic or realism she encounters?

Ross MacGibbon, who is responsible for capturing Alice on screen, performed for the Royal Ballet between 1973 and 1986 but has since become a film director specialising in dance. His filming techniques are sometimes akin to Match of the Day: they follow the action, they exclude large portions of the stage when the focus is at the other end, and, after a particularly virtuoso movement, they home in on the face of the half-exhausted performer. With cameras in the house, dancers who earn their living by making their bodies speak to the back of the gods have to act simultaneously in close-up. The moment when Alice goes cross-eyed, for example, is something the ROH gods would never pick up, even with binoculars, so Lamb’s body has to tell them what her face is doing. Cameras zoom in to the orchestra players’ faces and, sometimes, décolletages but only rarely offer a classic landscape, whole-stage view as from the ROH stalls.

In many ways, Alice was a dazzling example of what this hybrid “live” performance can offer – an event that is different from what anyone in the theatre would experience but still grounded in the theatricality of live dance.

Yet as a performance historian I’m left with some questions. Will such glossy, seductive broadcasts replace or override those one-camera-at-the-back-of-the-stalls video recordings of performances that are of varying quality but do allow the viewer to choose, as in the theatre, what to look at? And to what extent do the live broadcasts change the performance? Broadcasts from Shakespeare’s Globe – which are not live but a composite of two different performances – exhibit both the production and the Globe audience, in daylight, to a cinema audience sitting in the dark. Does the Globe’s built-in distancing effect disappear as far as the cinema audience is concerned? Does a live broadcast risk creating what Bertolt Brecht termed “culinary theatre”, with an inert, popcorn-munching and sated audience instead of a critical and activist one?

And what about the so-called “encore” live screenings? Are they any more Brechtian? Recently, the National Theatre rescreened Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Is watching the “live” Frankenstein, exhumed and resurrected from 2011, slightly akin to watching the 1966 World Cup final, in that we know what will happen: England will win; Boyle will put another “creature”, Caliban, at the heart of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony? Does this allow audiences to watch more critically? (And does Equity have a sliding scale of “liveness” to cope with the “encore” phenomenon?)

So I remain a devotee of the “you had to be there” approach to theatre, and it was my first experience of live broadcasting that really brought home its dilemmas. This was the 2010-11 production of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Sir Derek Jacobi, for which it was impossible to get hold of a ticket. The actors were halfway through Gloucester’s “fall” at Dover Cliffs when the live link was lost. I expected to miss 10 minutes or so. But when the link was re-established, the actors took the scene again from the top. So Paul Jesson as Gloucester – what a hero! – had to do the most difficult scene in Shakespeare twice in one night. Very Brechtian. But if it had really been “live” theatre, wouldn’t it have been “the show must go on”, with apologies to anyone watching in Keswick?

On the subject of impossible-to-get-into King Lears: from 24 November 2015, Geoffrey Rush will be performing as Lear for the Sydney Theatre Company. He has played Lear’s Fool twice before, but this is his first crack at the King. With his training at the Jacques Lecoq school of physical theatre and mime in Paris, theatrical intelligence, risk-taking and total commitment to every role, Rush’s Lear is going to be one to watch. But if there is no live broadcast, no one outside Sydney will see it. So far no theatre has been live broadcast from Australia, although the Australia Ballet and Opera have managed this feat. Now if I could sit in the Alhambra in Keswick and watch Rush play Lear in Sydney, I would really think I’d fallen down a rabbit hole into Wonderland.

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