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The Play's the Thing

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Friday, June 23, 2006


I’ve seen the winning play!

Kate Betts is a talented writer; she has an ear for natural dialogue, a real warmth and some great one-liners.

When I was a kid, theatre meant panto between Christmas and New Year, a trip to the Victorian provincial theatres like Southsea, with the dress circle, red velvet seats and a safety curtain.

Sonia Friedman’s New Ambassador’s Theatre is like that, but scaled down like a doll’s house.

A pantomime dame once told me a story of removing his wig, backstage, to greet his 4 year old nephew and the little boy screaming in uncontrolled terror.

Theatre has its magic, vicious side, the tears of the clown etc, and finally we caught a glimpse of this in Kate’s final scene when Elvis and Jesus sup together.

But mainly we didn’t get it, we were given intimacy (on a big stage) and flashbacks to a childhood (like telly) and Kate’s play spoke about feelings straight into our ear (like radio).

But you should go and see On The Third Day, actors Maxine Peake and Paul Hilton are spot-on, it’s directed really well, and if Kate’s play had been produced for the fringe and transferred to the New Ambassadors, she would be riding the crest of the wave.

Don’t listen to the hand-wringing from its producer, Sonia Friedman who came out front on Monday night before the show and apologised for a new play, as if it was out of the ordinary, and the Soho Theatre didn’t put on ten new productions a year. Okay, not in West-End commercial theatre – which is saturated with musicals, complained Sonia. And why?

Musicals do what TV and radio can’t. Musicals fill those cavernous Victorian stages with great big sets, and make a great big song and dance about a great big story, possibly, perhaps, maybe…. that’s why people flock to them…

posted by Sarah Weatherall @ 3:22 pm    4 comments

Monday, June 19, 2006

The play's the thing... wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king

I found myself back at Resonance 104.4 FM last night for a one hour live Hamlet.

Using edited highlights, director Clive Brill transformed the most famous play in the world, from an exploration of the individual’s relationship within the body politic, into an action thriller. Clive had cut out all the boring linking scenes, assigned speeches from Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras to other characters, and abriged most of the long speeches which left us with some surreal moments…

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
But come;

The actors put their hands up… ‘Clive do you think we should put back in, ‘…than are dreamt of in your philosophy?’’ ‘Oh yes,’ he said hastily, ‘that cut was a mistake.’

I was invited to time each scene in rehearsals, and tot up how long Clive’s abridged Hamlet was going to run. This rehearsed timing, with the musician Pascal Wyse performing the music links, proved crucial to the live performance because I was able to see exactly how long each scene should last, and to let Clive know, when were live, that we were a minute behind schedule.

So all 14 of us crammed into the studio-cum-office (which had felt a bit cramped last week with a cast of 2), and went for it. There were 5 mics, 1 stereo with a pop-shield which the cast mainly gathered around, and the remaining mono mics were assigned for other cast and the effects.

Sound designer Tom Haines played on a keyboard sampler with a midi controller. Pascal Wyse played a trombone with a silent brass attached, which fed into a multi-effects unit, so the trombone transformed into hunting horns or a blast of ten trombones.

Clive’s choice of trombone worked as a jazzy improvised sound-track, as well as brass sfx for Claudius and the court. The music stings also covered jump-cuts in the action, moving us on to the next scene.

Julian Rhind Tutt (Channel 4’s Green wing) playing Hamlet was great. He read the script with passion and energy, making it sound easy – but it was Hamlet on speed – and at 45 seconds left on air, Julian jumped ten lines to get us to the end.

If you’re going to pull off a one-hour live Shakespeare, your one requisite is actors experienced as Clive’s cast to pull it off, so they can work at speed without gabbling and losing sense of the text; see below for advice from the horse’s mouth:

‘Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. But use all gently. For in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness (like yonder fair Julian Rhind Tutt). O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags…..’

posted by Sarah Weatherall @ 11:47 pm    2 comments

Monday, June 12, 2006

On air

Last night I went to a recording of a live drama broadcast at Resonance FM.

Resonance 104.4 is London’s stream of experiment. I’ve listened before, but never stuck with it because what makes Resonance interesting (Innuit bell-ringers) is what makes it ahem – a challenge sometimes.

Anyway this drama was being acted out live on-air, so anything could happen, and I was a bit nervous – say I, as an observer, f****d up the recording by falling off my chair or knocking something over… What would happen if one of the actors lost his place on the page, was he going to say, sorry I’ll do that bit again?

Resonance’s offices… they’re genuine. There’s been no attempt to have a make-over or wash up. As the live broadcast of Iranian music was transmitting from the main upstairs studio, the director Jessica Dromgoole, Producer Alisdair McGregor, Johnny Brown, sound designer, actor Simon Scarderfeld, Thomas Crow, writer, and me squeezed into a small studio-cum-office below.

Alisdair chose two mono mics for an MS Stereo recording set up. The first mic Sennheiser MKH60 had a head-on capacity for recording, the second, MKH30 a figure-of-8 range, to allow the actors to move around its environs. The mics were clipped together, like barrels of a gun, and slipped into a single wind-shield.

Thomas Crowe’s Memo, was set in a cave and told the story of a cave dweller and a visitor who were locked in a spiral of fear through a series of challenging confrontations. Listening, I was fully engaged with both characters and had a clear idea of how they looked in my mind’s eye; an older character, fearful of life outside the cave, and a younger visitor having a go at him. When the recording ended, the penny dropped and I realised what I’d been hearing was one single disturbed mind, tormented by an inner voice. Or I think that was it….

The actor’s cave was built out of ten tonnes of concrete mix and imported Welsh shale – just checking you’re still with me – the actor’s cave was actually the section of the office between the cd rack and someone’s desk. Johnny Brown, sound designer, put a reverb onto the output, and the actors paced the distance of one foot square in their imaginary cave/mind/self/ego. Jessica, the director, talked about ‘pitching’ with the actors, which meant she was asking them to call out to each other ‘across the cave’, whilst standing two inches apart.

Alisdair adjusted the mix live through a Behringer mixing desk with a compressor, which received feeds from Johnny’s live output and the actors’ mics. The mixing desk fed into a laptop running Pro-Tools and various plug-ins.

Johnny, meanwhile, had looped various cave effects onto four different cds and mixed them live.

Because of the live effects and volume of the reverb, the actors were given head-phones so they could listen as they preformed the script. This helped them judge their distance to and from the mic; and for them it felt like laying down vocals against a pre-recorded backing track, so they weren’t bouncing off each other, just involved in the words on the page.

They had a 52 page double-spaced script, with 8 minutes allowed for live music cues. But at about 35 minutes in the number of pages left was looking on the thin side.

It finally came in at 45 minutes of a 60 minute live slot, so Alisdair did lots of hand gestures and after a bit of sound track for the finale, Johnny Brown, the sound-designer ad-libbed a post-match commentary with the actors and Jessica. At 60 minutes we were off-air, the Resonance trail kicked in, and we all clapped for a brief, embarrassing moment and that was it.

One last question… did you hear it?

posted by Sarah Weatherall @ 9:16 pm    0 comments

Monday, June 05, 2006

Radio Drama

Has anybody else noticed that this is a craft left behind somewhere in the 1970s along with the flared ice-skaters’ bell-bottoms? Has no ice-skater stamped his blades on the ice and demanded a stylist? Probably not, probably because there are ruling bodies and committees with world championship rules as to the suitable length of the flare and tannoy distortion levels on ice.

The nearest I’ve got to ice-skating, is watching the world championships on tv. A 7.5 for a triple axel, a 4 for the Saturday Night Fever costumes and glitter gel.

As an established arm-chair authority on ice-skating, I’m now able to turn my attention to the saddoes that make some of the naffest radio drama in the world. Likewise it’s probably not their fault. They probably have to answer to strict committees who enforce health and safety standard sound-effects for carriages passing over cobbles, and cast the same actress to play Jane Eyre in ten different adaptations
‘Last night, I heard a noise Mister Rochestaire, a terrifying noise, my blood ran cold’
‘Don’t be ridiculous Jane, finish your cereal’.

If most radio drama was transported to tv today it'd be laughed off the screen for its cardboard sets, clunky sound effects and actors with their best RP. Do you think anybody at the BBC, (the home of radio drama) has ever listened to a real conversation with its half-thoughts, interruptions, stoney silences, and incidental sounds? What is this about not being able to write 'for godsake' in the afternoon play? Can it get any quainter?

Sayin’ this, aghem…I’m compulsively tuned in. Curled under the duvet, drifting into a world where Stan Laurel visits his soul-mate Oliver Hardy on his deathbed, where Lata chooses her Suitable Boy, when Spoonfaced Steinberg whispers up secrets.

Okay, I haven’t ever recorded a radio drama, myself, but if I did, it wouldn’t have an atmosphere as flat as a recording in a broom cupboard. And my characters would live because you’d be able to hear them breathe.

So I've bought the domain name:

Fingers crossed....

posted by Sarah Weatherall @ 9:24 pm    5 comments


Welcome to Channel 4's The Play's the Thing blog.

posted by Clifford @ 11:36 am    0 comments

Sarah Weatherall

Sarah Weatherall directed The Colonel, one of the winning dramas in Channel 4’s The Radio Play’s The Thing