Who’s Stagey Now? The Dilemma of Theatre on Film

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s seminal American play Fences hit UK cinemas last weekend. The positive critical reaction the film has mostly received has been somewhat offset by a recurring critical refrain — Catherine Shoard in The Guardian writes ‘the aesthetic is… inescapably stagey’; Tim Robey for The Telegraph notes that ‘as filmmaking, Fences certainly has its limits’; Owen Gleiberman of Variety talks of the ‘unwieldy’ nature of its episodic structure and top-tier film critics Mark Kermode and Danny Leigh have both criticised the film for its lack of cinematic scope and ambition while praising its performances and script. However, the film has received 4 big Oscar nominations and a wealth of audience praise which has translated into commercial success. So what’s the deal with plays on film and why do film critics often carp about them?

Still from ‘Fences’ with Denzel Washington & Viola Davis. Image from here.

It is widely acknowledged that the gap between plays on stage and plays on screen has been narrowed in recent years due to the advent of NT Live. The National Theatre of Great Britain’s innovative endeavour of screening one live performance in the run of a production to cinemas across the world has been thoroughly embraced by the public. The technical aspects of filming a live stage performance have been so improved over the years that the whole evening is now neatly packaged with pre-show and interval entertainment. Plays are appearing on television more often too with the BBC series The Hollow Crown and one-off An Inspector Calls attracting big-name talent and strong ratings. However, there still seems to be a certain reluctance on the part of film critics to truly embrace faithful screen adaptations of plays that do not ‘open up’ the source material.

As a fan of both theatre and film in equal measure I am not about to deny the differences between the two media but the borders between them are growing ever more porous — a third way is emerging from the heavy shadows of tradition and it is inspiring experimentation on both sides. Cards on the table, every time I read or hear a critic talking about a film adaptation of a play I always get a sneaking suspicion that they secretly think that theatre is an artform for the elite and thank God they work in the more accessible film business, the true medium of the people. There is a subtle implication of a class difference between the two. But theatre, like film, can also be subdivided into tribal oppositions — low and high brow, populist and intellectual, commercial and subsidised and, lately, British and European. Accessibility is still a major hurdle that theatres in Britain are trying to overcome as best as they can. This is precisely why filming plays such as Fences and giving them a commercial cinematic release does so much to bridge the divide. Because let’s face it, the pool of people who live in or can get to New York City and are able to afford Broadway prices (which can reach truly eye-watering sums) is a percentage of a percentage of a percentage.

Fences on Broadway, 2010. Image from here.

This question of what makes something cinematic is both intriguing and maddening. I presume the reason why this label is so infrequently applied to plays on film is to do with their claustrophobic settings, the heavy metaphors and heightened language. Although one of cinema’s greatest innovators and influencers, Quentin Tarantino, could hardly be described as someone who scrimps on any of those. His latest film, The Hateful Eight, was like an Agatha Christie novel dipped in acid and the critics rounded on him for it accusing the film of a lack of movement as if somehow the Tarantino buck stopped there. Film’s multiplicity of form is its strongest suit. Comparing Fences unfavourably to a film like Moonlight, which was also based on a play, feels futile because different stories require different forms and this was the one August Wilson chose and which Washington has honoured. The cinematic value of Fences is not in the sweeping movement of the camera, the use of light and colour or the topography of the images, it’s in the faces of the characters and the words escaping from them. Even if you were able to see this play in the theatre, chances are you’d be up in the Gods unable to catch the nuances of the actors’ every movements. It opens the play to close-up which really suits the tenor of Wilson’s writing. Washington’s deployment of sturdy cinematography also serves to enhance the emotions and weight of the words. And it is the words that provide the soaring scope that other movies express through the camera. It is a different way of doing things but no less of a work of filmic art and all the more rare in a mainstream movie landscape where the script is often only a rudimentary tool to get to the part where everything explodes.

The point is films can be anything. Plays can also be anything and they are increasingly making use of wider range of technology at their disposal. A stage play on film should not be treated as second best. Sometimes it won’t work out — the film of August: Osage County failed to capture the brilliance of the play. Sometimes it will though — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf works pretty damn well by all accounts. Although perhaps that has more to do with the fact that Mike Nichols was a fantastic screen director whereas John Wells is more known for being a producer and showrunner. Film and theatre are like siblings, they share DNA, and as the membranes between them become ever more intertwined I think it might be time to embrace their union.

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