'Tis a film within a play about a play made into a film


Technology has never been more affordable or accessible, so there’s something inevitable about its use on stage. But it’s difficult to get right, says the director of an ambitious reworking of a John Ford classic

IN 2001, THE PROJECT Arts Centre in Dublin hosted John Ford’s play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore(pared back to She’s a Whoreand a pithy 45 minutes). The original was written in the 17th century and, daringly, tackled incest and revenge. The 2001 production transposed the setting to the American Midwest and, with a knowing nod to the other John Ford, projected footage of that director’s Stagecoachon to screens. On Tuesday, the play returns in a lengthier and more ambitious staging called ’Tis Pity She’s a Whorebut it, too, includes the use of film.

The original play concerns the story of Annabella and her brother, Giovanni, who begin an incestuous relationship in 17th-century Italy, resulting in Annabella’s pregnancy. The director, Selina Cartmell, wanted to skew that interpretation.

“John Ford looked back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietto create a new version of a relationship, but he twists the template. I’ve tried to twist Ford’s world, and using film is one aspect of that.”

The play is presented as a film set, where an Orwellian director (played by Louis Lovett) has gathered a contemporary cast to produce a film of the play. Imagine Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Storyon the set of a film version of Tristram Shandy. On both sides of the stage, screens show the rushes of the day’s filming. Another screen at the back of the stage represents, in Cartmell’s words, “the director’s consciousness. The screens allow us to merge reality and illusion.”

Lovett plays both Giovanni, who is represented in the screened rushes, and the film director, physically on stage. The piece intentionally blurs the boundaries between live action and filmed sequences, with some actors appearing only on screen and never on stage, as if their parts were already shot and completed.

There are many reasons we engage with, and ultimately pay to see, theatre, but presence is at the core. We can see actors spit with enunciation and experience the live sense of what André Bazin called “being in the room”. By bringing film into that arena, placing the 2D screen beside the 3D actor, is the experience lessened, ushering in a sense of passivity?

Sorcha Kenny, whose play The Woman Who Left Herselfwon the Spirit of the Fringe Award in 2008, has some experience. “That character was in my head from the start, and I knew I wanted to represent her by using technology.”

In her production, Kenny sat at one end of a table (the audience were dinner-party guests) facing a monitor on which she plays another version of the character. Kenny as the woman in the room never speaks, and all the dialogue is delivered via the character on the screen.

“I was a shell, so it was important that I said nothing, but it was still a live experience. As an artist, you have to think about why you’re going to use technology in your work, why you’re using that mechanism to communicate your idea. It should never be because you feel that technology will make it more modern or contemporary. It’s another character on the stage and should be used only to push an idea forward.”

Willie White, artistic director of Dublin Theatre Festival, says there has always been a connection between film and theatre.

“Theatre is a syncretic medium; it incorporates so many things – music, visual art, film – and even when it incorporates new ideas, it’s still a live audience experience.

“If you bring film vocabulary, [such as] montage or the idea of the close-up into theatre, it can be exciting. It can also be difficult to get right.”

He cites numerous examples, including Katie Mitchell’s use of video mixing in her version of The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, and Desperate Optimists, whose interpretation of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western Worldused video as a means of showing other people discussing the play’s themes and interrupting events on stage.

The Wooster Group theatre ensemble (who count Steve Buscemi as an associate member) engage in experimentalism using live action and are, as White says, “exemplary users of the screen as a framing device”.

In Irish theatre this year, Marina Carr’s 16 Possible Glimpsesmade use of film; I Am a Homebird (It’s Very Hard)featured a Skype conversation, and a waveform appeared on screen during a set change in the Abbey’s Pygmalion.

Of all the arts, theatre is arguably the most malleable: watching a film, reading a book or listening to an album have their own limitations, but theatre is the medium that can subsume all other art forms.

Incorporating film seems an extension of that, but without using it as an add-on visual flourish or to embellish a challenging work. Its inclusion demands that it is nascent, there from the start of a production or at least as central as the characters or costuming.

In recent months, Cartmell has worked on another John Ford play, The Broken Heart, but never considered using film in it. “The two works are completely different, and I knew that a work like ’Tis Pity. . . would work with technology. Its themes could absorb the impact of it.

“If the technology is used properly, it will feel real to the actors, and the juxtaposition of live work and film tells the story in a more interesting way. It’s also important that the lives of the characters off-camera influence those of the characters who are actually on stage.”

The key is not to distract your audience by steering them away from the actors in the room towards activity on screens. Sorcha Kenny is aware of that balance, having successfully used it in The Woman Who Left Herself. With its follow-up, Lavender, she says the inclusion of film was problematic.

“I worked really hard on the visual element; it felt completely separate from the live experience. What was happening on screen and on stage just didn’t blend. It felt like watching and experiencing two different things.”

TECHNOLOGY NOW HASits own democracy. It has never been more affordable, accessible or easy to use. White says we will see more of this content/technology cross-pollination in theatre, but he shares Kenny’s caution.

“There must always be consideration given to the consequences on that work and if there’s a formal reason for using it. People are using laptops and smartphones in innovative ways for production, but you have to be realistic about what you can achieve.”

Just as sound design has gradually established itself separately between the two theatrical totems of sound and music, the use of film should be similarly specialist. For Cartmell, this was elemental to The Making of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

“We worked with several different people who have specialist skills to make sure that the film aspect worked. It was like looking at it like a piece of music, where you need all the notes and rhythms to fit in, from live to film.

“We needed to merge those worlds so it seemed effortless.”

The Making of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore