Theatre vs. film

Clement Grene muses…

Watch closely the next time you see someone enjoying a cup of coffee in a film. Most of the time, the cup will actually be empty and certainly very rarely will you see someone actually drink from it. This is because of the nature of filmmaking. An actor might be required to do the same take eight or nine times -to actually take a sip of coffee each time would put a strain on the strongest of bladders. How many of these takes are done depends on the director – Clint Eastwood has been said to be to satisfied with any shot in which the camera did not actually fall over while the notoriously difficult filmmaker Stanley Kubrick sometimes forced his actors to do the same take a hundred or more times over. The general principle remains. Actors and cameramen provide a wide range of material, from which the director selects and edits and eventually presents to the viewing public. Films are also almost invariably naturalistic. Attempts to draw attention to their own artificiality or directly address the audience often come across as awkward or rather self-consciously clever, for reasons dictated by the very medium. If our perspective pulls back to reveal cameras and film equipment (like Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, opening on a darkened sound stage while the Chorus apologises for the limitations of theatre), it’s only because it’s being filmed by another, unseen camera. The recent trend of documentary-style films with diegetic, handheld camerawork only deepens this: the purpose of this style is actually to make the films feel more authentic and realistic, not less so.

Theatre, by contrast, is always a much more raw and immediate experience. The most perfectionist of theatre directors can make their actors repeat their lines over and over again in rehearsal, but on the night, the actors will have just one chance to make their delivery, in front of the audience. It isn’t possible to get them to do it again if they screw up their line nor is it possible to polish or edit the scene in post-production. This of course makes complete disaster possible but also adds an intensity and conviction to their performance. This urgency is everywhere in a theatrical performance. I remember holding my breath watching Sam Shepard’s True West performed in the Peacock. This play climaxes with a massive fight between the two main characters. They roll around the comparatively small and crowded set, relentlessly smashing props and to all appearances trying to do the same to each other. I don’t even want to think about the effort that must have gone into choreographing that scene and yet on the night, there was still every possibility of something going wrong. Stephen Sondheim plays with this kind of tension in the second act of Into the Woods – part of the set falls with an almighty crash and the stage directions note that the audience should be momentarily led to think that a real accident has occurred. Contrast that with a special-effects laden gunfight in the latest Bond film. While there was certainly agonising drama and anxiety on set (stars and stuntmen breaking limbs, one-time chances to film unrepeatable explosions; constant awareness of how much money is being spent every second the cameras are rolling), what we the audience are actually seeing is just the controlled, smoothed-out end result of all this energy and uncertainty. To the extent that they want us to fret about anything at all, the filmmakers would like us to be worried about the dangers to Bond’s life, not those to their production. 

By contrast, in theatre, we are always reminded that we are watching a play. Clever and imaginative setting and props can do a lot with a stage but it will always fundamentally remain a stage. Characters in plays have always unabashedly addressed the audience, from the chorus of Greek drama to Shakespeare’s soliloquies and asides. Ever more since the advent of film, theatre has embraced and drawn attention to its own limitations rather than trying to overcome them. Even the most basic facts of theatre, like the way that actors have to stand facing their audience even while talking with other characters or the fact that in theatres lacking a curtain, stagehands have to move the sets in front of the audience, enforce this awareness of the artificial nature of the medium. And so the basic distinction between film and theatre is something of a paradox. Films purport to offer us something real, try to minimise and conceal their own contrivances and transport us wholly into the world of the film and yet we are watching something that has been endlessly worked over and polished. We are distanced from the realities of filming and even the actors’ own raw performances. Theatre on the other hand, is always aware of and even makes frequent reference to its own artificiality and yet in a live theatrical performance, we are watching something far more immediate and intense than even the grittiest and least glossy film offers.