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Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter: how projections bring a classic film to life on stage

Jim Sturgeaon and the cast of Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner Jim Sturgeaon and the cast of Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner
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As Kneehigh’s multimedia staging of Brief Encounter returns to a London cinema, the show’s projection designers tell Tim Bano explain how they have integrated archive footage with live action to memorable effect

When Kneehigh staged an adaptation of classic film A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre a decade ago, so harsh were the reviews that the National’s then director Nicholas Hytner kicked back, calling newspaper critics a bunch of “dead white men” sniggering at plays directed by women.

A few months later, Kneehigh, under Emma Rice, returned to London with another multimedia film adaptation, based on Brief Encounter. This time, there were no sniggers; instead it met with adoring reviews. The show played in the converted Empire cinema on London’s Haymarket for a year. It earned four Olivier nominations and two Tony nominations, the design won an Evening Standard award and a Critics’ Circle award and, since 2008, it has been performed around the world. Now it is returning to the Empire for a six-month run.

Read our 2015 interview with Emma Rice

Brief Encounter has become a cultural keystone of contemporary theatre, with a handcrafted, romantic feel. But what set it apart was its pioneering projection, which places the production somewhere between theatre and cinema. Live action blends seamlessly with recorded footage as animations bleed into reality.

“When we first did the show there was very much a feeling that we knew we were doing something quite special,” says designer Neil Murray who, with projection designers Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll, was responsible for the show’s look. “People have incredibly fond memories of that original piece.”

Although in its latest incarnation the show has played in Birmingham and Salford before hitting London, the difference is that Birmingham Rep and the Lowry are theatres. They’re equipped for theatrical productions. The Empire cinema is not.

Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter announces West End run

Before the show can move in, the team has to convert the building into a fit-for-purpose theatre space, just as it did 10 years ago. “In theatres you can fly things in and out, you can rig lanterns and you’ve got wings – you’ve got all of that stuff that you just take for granted,” Murray says. “Believe me, it was not in any way easy the first time. We’re about to do it again, and it’s no easier.”

One problem is the Empire has a cinema screen with nothing behind it. “My department should find it easy, because it’s already a cinema,” says Driscoll, who is in charge of filming pre-recorded sequences for the show. “But it’s a real conundrum for us because all the projectors are in the wrong places for the design of the show. We’re having to add projectors into discreet places in the cinema where you’d never normally have them.”

Neil Murray
Neil Murray

Unlike a theatre equipped with a flytower or at least some height above the stage, the Empire is quite a low building, which is another challenge when it comes to projections. Driscoll explains that it’s “extremely difficult” to get the correct angles for huge images to be projected on to the back wall, so he has to install projectors lower down in the cinema to compensate. “Basically you need to bend light round corners, which is impossible. But we’ll figure it out.”

While it’s a lot easier to install in a theatre, where there’s less problem-solving needed and less compromise involved, Driscoll is clear that the cinema location is more exciting for the audience. Producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers chose the space a decade ago partly because they could guarantee a longer run than in a West End theatre, but also to create the feeling of an event. Ushers in 1940s uniforms served ice cream, and the building itself had an authentic period feel.

Besides, David Lean’s original film – in turn based on a play by Noel Coward – is not only a classic of British cinema, but was also about cinema. The reason the protagonists Laura and Alec meet is that she is returning from a film matinee. So Rice and the team made that meeting of film and theatre an integral part of the show: a large screen with filmed footage of the actors hangs over the stage, the actors can step into the specially designed screen, and they suddenly appear as filmed versions of themselves.

Driscoll, who trained as a cinematographer, had been working with projections since around 2000, and had been involved in A Matter of Life and Death as well as a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rebecca. His and Carrington’s projections were, he says, “quite innovative at the time – it was early days for projection technology”.

Isabel Pollen in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner
Isabel Pollen in Brief Encounter. Photo: Steve Tanner

Despite the pioneering technology, Driscoll and Carrington were clear that they did not want the projections to be overbearing or distracting. “It has an important role to play, but it doesn’t do it in a very brash or technological way,” Driscoll says of the projection design. “We wanted the footage to feel very human and we would try to get defects in it to match it up with the era. We basically wanted to make it feel like a late-1930s British film that may have been done on a slightly less-than-adequate budget during the war years, which is what Brief Encounter was.”

As the show has toured over the last decade, and actors have joined and left the show, Driscoll and Carrington have reshot footage and rolled over existing footage. This production features an entirely new cast, so all the video is new but, perversely, as technology has advanced it has been more of a challenge to maintain the original aesthetic. Ten years ago Driscoll was still shooting on film using a 16mm camera, supplemented with green-screen techniques that would be heavily worked on by Carrington in post-production to give it “a much more grainy video, filmic look”.

Now, though, they are shooting on 4K video at very high resolution, which is “much too sharp and far too detailed” for the old-fashioned look they wanted. Contemporary technology, Driscoll points out, has been far more of a hindrance than a help when revisiting the show.

Driscoll is also wary about the future of projection in theatre. “People might say, ‘Everything is going to be projected one day.’ But I would really hope that never ever happens. We really want to preserve the craft and the scenic artists, and projections will be a layer on top of that. It’s not necessarily how many bells and whistles it’s got on it.” The magic of Brief Encounter, he says, is that “it’s simple and it works”.

Murray agrees. The effects, as when Laura seems to step in front of a high-speed express train, are “so simple, but look really exciting – it’s full of brilliant invention”.

He also insists that the show is as powerful now as it was in 2008. “There was a moment when Emma and I were watching it and we just started crying,” he admits. Although Kneehigh has moved on in the last 10 years, and technology has advanced, Murray and Driscoll hope that this piece of retro romance can still captivate audiences just as it did a decade ago.

CV: Neil Murray

Training: Fine art, Newcastle, Hull and Birmingham universities
Career: Associate director/designer, Dundee Rep (1980-91); associate director/designer, Northern Stage (1991-2012)
Awards for Brief Encounter: Evening Standard Theatre award for best design (2008), Critics’ Circle award for best design (2008), Obie award for best design (2010), Outer Critics Circle award for best set design (2011)
Agent: None

CV: Jon Driscoll

Training: Cinematography, National Film and Television School; theatre design, Croydon College of Art
Awards: Obie award for best design, Brief Encounter (2010), Olivier award for best lighting design with Paul Pyant for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2014)
Landmark productions: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, West End (2013), Before the Dawn, Kate Bush (2014), Finding Neverland, Broadway (2016)
Agent: Simon Ash at Loesje Sanders

Brief Encounter runs at the Empire Cinema Haymarket in London from March 11 to September 2

How theatre stalwart Celia Johnson nearly turned down Brief Encounter

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