I recently attended a quality performance of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in Stratford. (Yes, that’s right – I’m a wanker.) The experience led me to ruminate on the differences between the stage and screen. My thoughts run as follows…
At a play we each have a single vantage point from which to observe the action. But we are able to look where we choose within that restriction. When watching a film we get multiple angles but are entirely at the behest of the director and editor as to what we focus on at any particular moment. If you want to spend your whole time in the theatre focusing on an actor’s dodgy wig, the option is there for you to do so. In a film, the angles and cuts will be carefully chosen to minimize your chances of noticing an offending hairpiece. (For example, did you know Sean Connery is wearing a syrup as far back as Dr. No, the very first Bond film?!)
At a play the audience can also have a direct impact on the production. Actors feed off the audience, and the pace, rhythm and tone of an individual performance can alter significantly from one night to the next. A film will never change no matter who is watching. Although, of course, its impact can. Watching a film with an audience can reveal aspects you never knew existed. I was always aware Raiders of the Lost Ark had laughs in it, but didn’t register the sheer volume until I saw it on a re-release. Every scene has a visual or verbal gag of some kind.
Watching Jasper Britton as Barabas in The Jew of Malta I was struck by the incredible physicality required in playing a character on the stage. Britton seemed to be using every part of his body to produce moments of humour and pathos, sometimes simultaneously. He also elegantly switched between dramatic moments with the other actors and engaging with the audience in asides, drawing us in as co-conspirators.
On film (or TV) an actor can get away with conveying their character and telling the story almost entirely through their line readings. Unfortunately this is what most critics focus on when they look for the differences between a “good” and a “bad” performance. Film actors whose primary attributes are physical get overlooked. Take Keanu Reeves in Speed or The Matrix. None of us would ever rave about the way the man delivers a line, but he is able to hang off the bottom of a moving bus while trying to defuse a bomb and take the audience with him. There are plenty of wildly praised ‘serious’ actors who could not manage that.
The theatre has an immediacy; the actors are right in front of you, sometimes even interacting with you. This is the thrill of live performance – actors and audience living every moment as one. And there are no second takes. For me, though, the thrill is accompanied by a strange anxiety: what if an actor screws up? Wouldn’t that be horrible? This frequently takes me out of the action and I become acutely aware of the artifice of the situation.
With the cinema there is no such anxiety, and it is joyously easy to get lost in story. We believe what we see on screen in a way we never believe the action within the proscenium arch. Even plays with the highest pretentions at realism are inherently phony. Have you ever cried at a play? I never have. But I’ve cried at even mediocre films. Fuck it, I’ve cried at trailers.