This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Copenhagen – Chichester Festival Theatre

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at the Minerva is rich in possibilities

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Click here for the YouTube review of Copenhagen in Chichester on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

So what is Copenhagen about? Ostensibly it’s about what happened at a mysterious meeting that took place in the Danish capital during World War Two between two of the great quantum theorists- Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle, and Bohr, who united the two main theories of quantum mechanics. Yes, but what’s it really about?

On the face of it, the play is about three dead people, ghosts if you like- Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife- trying to work out between them what happened back in 1942. They keep going over the same ground with different results, and reveal all sorts of interesting things along the way. Appropriately to a play involving Quantum Theory, there are possibilities, probabilities and, above all, uncertainty. In fact the fluid time and colliding dialogue of Michael Frayn‘s play and Michael Blakemore’s bare production which makes the characters seem like protons in the nucleu of an atom give us insights into Quantum Theory.

So here are my thoughts on the possibilities, probabilities and uncertainty of what I saw.

Looking at it one way, the play is about history and science and how the two interlink. Quantum Theory led to nuclear fission which led to the atomic bomb- and a race between Germany and the Allies to create it.

Looking at it another way, it’s about the moral dilemma felt by a theoretical scientist wanting to help win a war but working on a weapon of mass destruction to achieve that victory. Did the meeting affect the outcome of the war?

Then again, the play is about how time and memory work: what happened is always gone and replaced by an unreliable memory influenced by subsequent events. And the impossibility of seeing yourself and your life objectively because you are the centre of your universe.

 

 

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at CFT’s Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

 

You could say the play is about how people and relationships affect history and science. How jealousy, rivalry, fear, ambition and personal tragedy play their part. Charles Edwards as Heisenberg gives us a moving account of a life under the Nazis. Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson are his equal in acting power.

You might come out thinking mainly about how impressive it is that an intelligent well written drama can put across all the above.

To go back to quantum theory, Copenhagen could be about how the act of observation changes what’s being observed. My experience might have been different on a different night but when I observed it, I thought Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre deserved five stars.

Copenhagen is at the Minerva Theatre until 22 September 2018

This is my review of Copenhagen on YouTube