Normally, getting to grips with a new medium and a new artform is something you do by choice; “this winter I’ll get really into Twine”, you say to yourself, with no special urgency attached. But 2020 was the year when anyone interested in theatre and performance was ushered (or dragged, vigorously protesting that “it’s not the same!”) into the world of livestreaming. There was sometimes a sense of accompanying responsibility to be upbeat about the Zoom shows you saw. This was a form being born (or at least forced to abruptly mature) during an ongoing onslaught of horrendous world events, and carping about technological mishaps felt as mean-spirited as criticising the tuning at a nursery carol concert. But then, livestreaming started to grow up. Theatre companies started to stage productions especially for the camera, coming up with strategies to mimic some of the qualities of going to an in-person performance, while experimental artists created new works taking inspiration from genres like gaming or cinema. After a sceptical start, there are some of the livestreams that gave Exeunt’s writers a lightbulb-bright moment of hope for the future of online theatre.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
I hadn’t realised Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning was going to be a production over Zoom when I booked it, which was actually useful: I thankfully tricked myself into it. Luckily for this format, it’s a sharply talky play, one which reunites four alumni of a Catholic college in Wyoming at the confused tail-end of an afterparty, clawing at and towards each other as they talk politics, theology, and how lonely they are. It had the same director (Danya Taymor) and cast as the Playwrights Horizons production, and it’s so interesting to think about how this could’ve aided rehearsing and performing again, but in isolation. They managed to sell me on believing they were looking at each other in the same space together, while instead staring at us, at their webcams. Stage directions were stripped back, and what remained read in a robotic, disconnected voice, whose tile (named “(())”) was hidden from us. I love the way the apparently notorious darkness of the IRL production was translated into actors recording themselves in what looked like their wardrobes, facial expressions magnified. Close to the end two actors left, but their darkened tiles remained, making the two actors left seem even more alone in this virtual space. Here’s a scribble I made of the last part of the production – from being pretty disinterested and unenthused about theatre over Zoom, I realised I didn’t want to forget how this’d looked. (Frey Kwa Hawking)
Campbell X’s letter in My White Best Friend, read by Martina Laird
When I first tried to buy tickets to My White Best Friend it was sold out, so that struck a weirdly pleasing (read, wholly exasperating) note of familiarity and continuity, sustained on Zoom itself by repeated (also exasperating) calls to the audience to take our seats. Confession: I watched the first letter of the evening, written by Afua Hirsch and read by Anne-Marie Duff, standing at the sink and hob; lockdown is the most heteronormative-domesticated I’ve been in a decade, somewhat to my discomfort. That’s partly why Campbell X’s letter hit the back of my throat with the warm sting of good whiskey: musing on sexuality, transition, gender identity, it was a pretty transgressive text to have playing at the family dinner table. Or was it? One of the stories Campbell told was of being sexually assaulted when a teen the same age as my own; separating young people from knowledge of sex and bodies doesn’t protect them so much as enable exploitation and enforce conservative homo-/queer-/transphobia. Martina Laird held Campbell’s letter as though clasping his palm; there was such an intimacy in her reading, in the way she fell silent while she scanned ahead, nodding, murmuring, crying in response, in agreement. Intimacy, liveness, an unselfconscious quality that heightened the impression of the two of them being profoundly in dialogue, a dialogue private yet open to witness, unfolding right there before you, Martina in her domestic space and you in yours, as distant as two heartbeats pressed together, as close as the front row of seats to a stage. (Maddy Costa)
At first, my evenings of screen-based theatre had all the flair and dynamism of a bobbly pair of paw-print pyjamas; just me, slumped on the sofa watching indifferent recordings of things I loved in another life, like a sad old man rewatching his wedding video after a painful divorce. Plymouth Point changed that, both because it felt so social and immediate (you play online, with a team of friends) and because it felt like something from ‘now’. A woman who’s struggling to operate a glitching Zoom chat sends you off on a trail across the internet; you have to dig out info from Facebook, like you’re stalking your friend’s Tindr date, and unearth secrets from a shadowy city-of-London corporation’s website. There’s no time to let your mind drift – just pure adrenaline, and that mind-expanding sense of a secret world unfurling underneath the familiar architecture of YouTube, Google, email and Wikipedia. (Alice Saville)
Show Me a Good Time
Gob Squad’s durational epic was livestreamed in June from the streets of Berlin and Sheffield, and Devon’s country lanes. Like intrepid reporters, the members of Gob Squad ran a kind of all-night news channel – the empty stage of HAU in Berlin acting as a newsroom – in which the news mostly added up to ‘not all that much going on here’. Out of this locked-down vacuum emerged moments of vulnerability (singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ outside Hillsborough stadium), strangeness (a white horse illuminated by phone flashlight), and joy (audience members in Berlin accepting an invitation to come out and sample one performer’s homemade kombucha). Up until this point, I’d found other livestreamed work frustrating – live, yes, but often born out of compromise and bound to the micro-scale and aesthetics of Zoom screens and domestic backgrounds, offering up only the claustrophobic world of bookshelves and conference calls I was already spending every other waking hour with. Gob Squad’s wildly ambitious, sprawling project played out on a bigger canvas and with the theatrical apparatus – lights, cameras, costumes – I’d so missed. It felt exciting – to them as well as to us – and it was as captivating as anything I’d seen pre-lockdown. (Ben Kulvichit)
After a lot of Zoom fatigue, I truly didn’t think a streamed show could reach out and slap me across the face. But Circle Jerk by Fake Friends bowled me over. It was a mix of pre-recorded material and live. It was Tik Tok and meme-centric and therefore benefitted from an online format. In some ways, it was theater made for these times, and whatever it would have been on stage would have been very different creature. It had a hyperactive, visual backdrop to match it’s uber-online subject matter. It also benefitted from an overwhelming maelstrom of pop culture references riffing on and referencing Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, FaceTune, Beyonce, Drag Race, The Hills, and musical theater to satirize white (supremacist) gay culture. It was smart, layered, and even when things got a little murky, I was still having fun. I needed this jolt to remind me what I was missing. New work building on the old (it was an homage to Charles Ludlam’s farce) and making art that felt urgent, showy, and of the moment. It was not afraid to run headlong into screens and screen-life, without it being just another talking head black box show. (Nicole Serratore)
Nine Lessons and Carols
On the eve of London entering Tier 3 and its theatres being ordered to close yet again, I took my seat in the virtual audience of Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida. Through songs, monologues, and short scenes, Chris Bush’s play explores gathering and loneliness, presence and absence. A delivery driver lists all the things he’s carried while other people boast about slowing down. The roles of parent and child are slowly reversed over the course of snatches of mealtime scenes. Nine Lessons and Carols reminded me how important theatre is in holding open a space for us to make sense of our experiences as a collective – and how fragile that space is. (Hannah Greenstreet)
Missing my annual dose of Sh!t Theatre, I tuned into Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole’s hilarious feminist take-down of the problematic Christmas fave, Love Actually. Highlights of the show include a song inspired by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page’s storyline (yep, the porn shoot one) and an investigation into what Alan Rickman’s charity actually makes – broom handles, they decide. Although I miss the jeopardy of watching the Sh!ts hand out very full shot glasses of Baileys across a packed auditorium, audience participation is encouraged through drinking games and a Whatsapp group. Like Sh!t Theatre’s take on A Muppet Christmas Carol, this is set to become another deconstructed Christmas tradition. (Hannah Greenstreet)
Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
I didn’t think Emma Rice’s particular brand of ramshackle theatricality would translate to livestreaming; she loves to take tropes from Charlie Chaplin comedies or grand black-and-white movie romances and have fun with them, picking apart their workings live on stage. But it turns out that translating tropes from cinema to stage and then to livestream is even more fun. There was something so joyful about seeing the painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella (Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson) pushing a toy train across the stage to represent a journey across Russia, or in the way the camera hugged the faces of these two actors in their black-and-white costume in make-up to create a 20s movie, betrayed only by tiny slivers of peach skin at the wrist, the forehead. Some of the difficulty in translating musicals to screen is an issue of scale; it’s hard to capture a huge chorus of 30 performers in a single frame. Flying Lovers escapes that problem because it’s so intimate, with just two performers in a set no bigger than a child’s swing set. Wise Children has announced that they’re making livestreams a permanent part of what they do, and although of course I’d love to be back in a room with them, weeping hot tears into an embroidered hankie at their Brief Encounter, I’m also so excited to see their games with cinema, stage and screen grow in sophistication. (Alice Saville)
For more on livestreams, read Alice Saville’s article Does online theatre really need to be live?