[A joint enterprise between myself and Lucian Waugh http://www.lucianwaugh.com]
Rosemary Wagg and Lucian Waugh boil the kettle get down to hard core politics: should a ballet be seen in a cinema?
Exactly halfway through Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man, Cynthia Leach, tiresome New York aristocrat who somehow ends up in a Californian college dining hall, calls across the cafeteria. Her purpose: to catch Professor George exactly halfway through his day-in-the-life narrative, regaling him with a précis of her recent vacation. She opines that old Mexican hotels are individual, characterful, real places by comparison to the indistinct ubiquity of an American Motel room. Like a latter-day Costa Coffee, the general omnipresence negates any particular reality.
For George an American Motel room is not “a room in an hotel, it’s The Room, definitively, period. There is only one; The Room.” Eliminating personality allows Americans to transcend the physicality of space and permits retirement to a self-consciously manufactured reality, as if to live inside their “own advertisements”. How seriously we should take this argument by the cultured and sensitive protagonist is debatable. His very singularity is affirmed by the title of the book. His idiosyncrasies doom any construction of him as the All-American Man and thus preclude his designation as The Single Man.
The supposed dichotomy of hotel/motel could be exchanged with equal accuracy with that of theatre/cinema. The theatre is historic, parochial, unique, its history enshrined by posters from its heyday, a brief glimpse behind an historical curtain promising a connection to hallowed performances that stretch back past living memory. The multiplex cinema is new, its surfaces simple and hallways wide. Popcorn and polish produce the same smell from the Glasgow Odeon to the Plymouth Vue. Any individuality in their design is a regretful concession to whatever aspect of the former structure the new occupants were forbidden to tear down.
Of the two, my preferred habitat is the cinema. Especially to enjoy a ballet. No thrice-checking the mobile phone five minutes before curtain-up, a niggling anxiety during live theatre only slightly improved by last week’s sad loss of Richard Griffiths, an actor ready and willing to suspend his own performance to verbally eject the offending device’s owner from the theatre. Likewise, the cultural neophyte need not worry about when to applaud; in a cinema you don’t unless you’re mad. In front of a dark screen, energy only flows one-way. Audiences are powerless to interfere with the entertainment.
However much the Old School may lament declining standards, Informality is hardly a buzzword at the Royal Opera House. In Bristol Cinema de Luxe the stranger seated on my left carried a bucket of popcorn larger than her head, I had a glass of wine. You can’t get away with that stuff in most theatres. The insidious pressure to make a sartorial evening of it does not remotely overshadow cinema visits. Turning up in pyjamas might still raise an eyebrow, but I doubt it would get you thrown out.
The very language we employ entrenches the distinction. One attends the theatre, the ballet, the opera: attendswith all its echoes of straight-backed servitude and self-repression. You simply go to the cinema. One doesn’t go the cinema, even; only You does.
I went to a live link between the Royal Opera House and cinemas across the nation. We all saw, simultaneously, Christopher Wheeldon’s entrancing Alice in Wonderland. This was a provocative retelling and quickly answered the question: does the Alice industry really need yet another version? I dread to think on how many occasions I have seen various versions of this seemingly evergreen story and it has been some time since something recaptured the sense of wonder of first acquaintance.
The ballet could be enjoyed under any benign circumstance but the cinema is a particularly apposite venue. Belief is suspended from the moment you cross the threshold and find out how much they charge for a bag of Maltesers. In this environment, the fantastical excesses of Lewis Carroll seem positively sane. The autonomy of the self is denied at every opportunity. The manager tersely ordered our queue to move up against the wall, a bold step to take against a predominately well-heeled matronly-type who is no stranger to drafting a devastating letter of complaint the next morning.
Loss of control, as a theme, characterises Alice’s experiences about as well as anything. So it does with the cinemagoer. Such is the nature of film, my right to look at whatever I wanted was entirely subordinated by the director’s prerogative to point the camera at whatever interested them. Rather like a televised sporting event, what is lost as an overall piece of movement is gained in telescoping details I would surely have otherwise missed.
The cinema is symbol of convenience and comfort, the body cocooned in leather and stuffed with popcorn, a dozen working lavatories on ever floor, and air-conditioning arresting the formation of every drop of sweat. Surrender our flesh and bones to them, and the spirit is loosed to range over sound and screen.
As an ideal, I couldn’t be more in support of the Royal Opera House’s recent endevour to widen accessibility to ballets and operas by live screening performances in cinemas across Britain. Increasing the dissemination of the arts by both dismantling assumptions about what is ‘high’ culture, and who should encounter it, and by more practical measures such as lowering the price of tickets, is an issue close to my heart and something I have spent much time thinking about this past year.
However, intellect and emotion are two different things and whilst I faun over the idea of an evening in the soft environs of the Royal Opera House, I not-so-silently dread the Americanised plasticity of a Showcase Cinema. The lady, it turns out, is a snob and prefers pre-show dinner in Covent Garden to inedible Space ‘food’ from the cinema snack bar. Going to the ballet was, I reasoned, a complete experience and part of that ‘experience’ is getting goose bumps looking at the curtain rising and oohing at glass-encased costumes once worn by Joan Sutherland. Whilst getting increasingly excited at the prospect of finally seeing the Alice in Wonderland ballet, I cautioned myself to be ready for disappointment – when did I last suspend disbelief in a bloody Odeon?
The results of this test of my so-called liberal principles were mixed. Whilst still thoroughly trapped in thoughts of ‘widening participation’ and ‘audience accessibility’, I noticed that the long queue of audience members almost exactly resembled a row of punters at the ROH, albeit slightly less smartly dressed. Endlessly repeating white, well-bred faces topped with grey hair produced good vowel-sounds whilst I tumbled down the Waitrose rabbit hole in the Showcase foyer. A lady behind me expressed disbelief that her companion had ‘never seen one at the Met?!’ and tempers politely rose along the neatly regimented line. It seemed that the screening had allowed more people to witness Sarah Lamb on stage without travelling to London and without paying ROH ticket prices, but had failed to alter the type of people attending. A casual eavesdrop into a few conversations suggested the attendees were mainly ballet-lovers like myself who simply welcomed any opportunity to see more ballet more often.
It could be argued that the screening still succeeded in dismantling hierarchy in one fashion, by allowing more people from across Britain access to performances in a London venue. I do, however, wonder how the multitude of theatrical and artistic venues across Bristol would feel about this. Does the employment of new technology to keep crowds engrossed in the London scene signal a relaxing of the dominance of London in the British arts scene or does it simply reinforce it? Arguably, if you are looking for ‘culture’ on a week night in Bristol, the Old Vic, the Tobacco Factory, the Brewery Theatre, the Hippodrome and the Arnolfini are the only beginning of a wealth of brilliant venues one could choose to visit and they probably wouldn’t welcome the co-opting of their potential custom by a multiplex cinema and a Goliath venue on a regular basis.
And so there is an insight into the kind of thoughts I was chewing over as I made my way to my giant, black cinema throne. Thoughts that were all concerned with what it was to be there and what it was the ROH was trying to achieve. Fast forward 20 minutes and all remnants of intellectual dribble had run free of my skull. The dormouse said ‘Feed your head’ and Christopher Wheeldon’s show sent me far away from not just the cinema, but also Bristol, the Royal Opera House, a nasty cold and the multitude of For and Against arguments.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at times errs more towards musical theatre than traditional ballet and makes spectacular usage of stage settings, props and knowingly-kitsch costumes. The inclusion of multimedia such as film screened onto stage backdrops and the clever employment of illusion-creating apparatus to, for instance, show Alice’s in the midst of her Eat Me-Drink Me growth spurt perhaps makes this very modern ballet particularly suited to being shown on a cinema screen. My previous experiences of watching traditional Swan Lakes on TV at Christmas were very different and always suggested that the viewer was missing something by not being in the original audience. With Alice in the Cinema, this was not so. For whilst I still imagined the ROH audience were seeing things I was not granted access to by the camera man, I can also assume that the more cinematic moments, such as Alice’s decent down the rabbit hole, may well have been more dramatic on film.
It may well be that cinema is part of the future of ballet in the much more literal sense that modern ballets and performances will increasingly make use of multimedia stage settings and cinematic technologies. This is turn will make them not just hugely exciting to see in the theatres, but also much more suitable for screening on a cinema or television screen. With The Rite of Spring now a distant memory, the next modernist movement is taking place more quietly and from behind a camera.