The School for Scandal

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Greenwich Theatre Production

Stage on Screen are a company established especially to produce recordings of actual stage productions so that they can be watched as a piece of theatre, not a movie or video play. Unlike other screen versions, whether recordings or telecasts, that have previously been made available which have been based on existing stage productions, this company have been responsible for mounting the original production with the producing theatre and a multi-camera recording made during an actual live performance. There are no specially staged shots and theatre director Elizabeth Freestone was neither asked, nor consciously arranged, any of the action with any thought of video.

I saw, and very much liked this production at Greenwich Theatre (as you can see from my review of it on stage) and video director Chris Cowey has presented it as it was. He uses a variety of camera angles and cuts from one to another as though this were a television relay but the viewpoints are always those of members of a real audience and, though often more close-up than would be possible without opera-glasses, they match but the closer focus of a real spectator with the occasional slight masking that occurs emphasises that this is real-time performance not a series of separate takes. It was apparently edited live like an Outside Broadcast with almost no later adjustment apparently, although all camera angles were recorded so this was possible if needed.

Freestone gives her production considerable pace and, watching in a domestic situation, I think this demands a degree of concentration that may be instinctive in the theatre but that is a more conscious effort than most people give to their television viewing. It points up what a barrage of verbal information we are being given compared with contemporary television drama. However, it is unlikely that most people will view the play straight through from start to finish. In schools it would probably take more than one class period to view even to the theatre's interval. The DVD allows the viewer not only to take a break at a convenient moment but to go back or rerun scenes as they wish.

The choice of shots is a constant reminder that this is a play on stage, with one low angle including footlights and high ones showing an expanse of stage boards, as is a permanent set and the use of traverse gauze half-curtains visibly being opened and closed.

At times this production is highly stylized, especially in its costume design which mixes period detail with a sort of King's Road high romantic with a touch of Adam Ant and a succession of extravagant greeting gestures invented to replace eighteenth century courtesies. On screen that theatricality might have jarred. Instead it emphasises the ephemerality of fashionable behaviour with its voguing.

I found my feelings about individual performances changed a little from my reaction to the live performance that I saw, though whether this was the effect of the different medium or because my live viewing was at the beginning of the run and the video was shot at the end of it I could not be sure. Certainly some performances, Jonathan Battersby's Sir Peter Teazle for instance, had gained in depth while the scandalmongers Backbite and Candour had become a little over the top, though Guy Burgess's Snake and Moses seemed just as solidly as rooted as ever.

There are obviously both gains and losses by going into close-up, as perhaps Cowey does a little too often, but since the whole purpose here is to show the production as a piece of theatre, reflecting its theatricality, the occasion impression of something being over emphasised is a reminder that these actors are performing not for the camera and the arm-chair viewer but to reach the whole of the live audience in the theatre.

When did you last see a production of The School for Scandal? In the educational sphere it is often difficult, if not impossible, for students studying a particular play to see a live professional performance. Even if a movie or television version is available it rarely gives a sense of what a theatre production would have like. I would think teachers and students will find the availability of hard-to-see plays like this a godsend in helping them to enjoy and understand such classic texts as this which form a part of both English and Theatre Studies curricula.

Stage on Screen provide a great deal of help for teachers on the study area of their website. This includes a full text with the director's cuts and amendments marked, a detailed summary of the plot with related questions, source material, ideas for context work, close text reading and extracts from other useful texts. All this, available gratis, has been produced by a working teacher of English & English Literature A Level, GCSE and Key Stage Three following work with his own students and including projects he has used successfully with them.

There is also a special teacher's pack (at a higher price) which includes two more DVDs and a CD-ROM. These include: (1) Interviews with the production actors and creatives, stills and costume designs. (2) A master shot version of the complete play from a single viewpoint, allowing the viewer to see all the lighting and scene changes, as well as all entrances and exits of the actors. (3) Key scenes shown from multiple camera angles, together with the master soundtrack, from which students can edit their own versions using a simple editing package.

This production was reviewed live at Greenwich Theatre by Howard Loxton

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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