One of the few benefits of the pandemic has been a profusion of online theatrical offerings.
Many of us have become familiar with top quality programming offered by the National Theatre in London, the Met in New York and Stratford Festival from Ontario, along with the proliferation of smaller theatres from around the world.
The major TV streaming companies have also got on board, with the likes of Netflix, Sky and Disney+ as well as BBC’s iPlayer presenting theatrical performances or stage plays turned into movies.
A more recent development has been the growth of what might be described as aggregators. These are online producers that collect recordings from an assortment of theatre companies and rent them by way of subscription.
This is clearly a growing trend, which is very welcome particularly for those who are either unable or disinclined to visit theatres at the current time, as the pandemic is once again threatening to get out of control and has been cancelling performances with alarming regularity.
The newest kid on the block comes from an unlikely location. Dramox TV is a Czech broadcaster, which means that unlike so many of its rivals, much of the company’s programming is unfamiliar and therefore even more welcome.
A significant proportion of the work is locally produced. However, spotting an opportunity to reach a much wider audience, HD video and English subtitles are readily available, though the quality of the translation isn’t always perfect.
The programming is widespread. There is Shakespeare from Stratford, opera and dance performances from some of the finest companies in the world but also much theatre on a smaller scale, including some tremendous productions from what appear to be fringe Czech companies.
For example, Divadlo Petra Bezruče from Ostrava has delivered a new interpretation of 1984 that combines physical and verbal theatre with George Orwell’s timeless fable. In addition to rendering the novel on stage, the adapters have introduced a series of vox pop interviews with locals, comparing life today with that under the communists. This presents a fascinating background and twist to the woes of Winston Smith and makes for compelling viewing.
Tel Aviv University Theatre’s atmospheric centenary production (Hebrew with English subtitles) of S Ansky’s The Dybbuk utilises a similar theatrical style. Recorded in front of a masked audience during the pandemic in the middle of 2021, an all-female cast under the direction of Ealeal Semel use the simplest methods to great effect in depicting a chilling morality tale of love and possession.
A second novel adaptation in a very different style from 1984 is also well worth catching. This is a musical version of Anna Karenina presented from the Moscow Operetta Theatre. The company does a fine job of conveying the story in musical form, clearly utilising a lavish budget well with slick choreography, compelling video work and a good company of performers. If there is one reservation, it is a score that has Russian overtones but can frequently veer close to a style familiar to fans of Eurovision.
The Chess Player is adapted, directed and performed by Richard McElvain, bringing to the stage Stefan Zweig’s charming novella about a man who borrows chess matches from the greats to withstand Nazi torture in Vienna.
Brexit from Tom Carradino Teatro is co-written by the company’s founder and Samuel Toye, who respectively play 47-year-old Charles and his son Eric just over half his age. Using a mixture of stage genres, the duo relate a touching, if uneven, tale of overcoming grief at the same time as exploring the British vote on Europe from opposing perspectives. Along the way, they combine comedy, song, mime and a number of other skills.
The operatic offerings are equally eclectic and of the highest quality. Perhaps the highlight from this trial selection hails from the Hamburg State Opera. The ever-inventive Catalan director Calixto Bieito enjoys modernising every kind of stage work, with a particular love of Shakespeare.
Therefore, his version of Verdi’s Falstaff, impressively led by larger-than-life baritone Ambrogio Maestri, recorded in 2020 is bright and lively, complemented by a superb cast and orchestra and the director’s trademark dark humour.
The Berlin State Opera’s visually updated large-scale rendition of Carmen is almost equally exciting. Martin Kušej directs a cast led by Marina Domashenko, turning Carmen into an erotic femme fatale, and Rolando Villazón portraying the lovelorn Don José in a vibrant, sexy production that works as well dramatically as musically, which is saying something given an orchestra expertly conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
The operatic interpretation of Dead Souls was composed in the 1970s by Rodion Shchedrin using as its source the novel by Gogol. A recent production from the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with an orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev looked and sounded wonderful, although even with subtitles, some of the underlying plotting may prove to be impenetrable.
There is much more available and the library is growing. Dramox is currently available for €11.90 a month or €119 per annum.