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Tal Yarden: ‘In video design, we are using cinematic tools in theatre’

Tal Yarden has designed video sequences for: Hamlet at the Almeida, starring Andrew Scott. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Just when you thought every permutation of staging Shakespeare had been tried, along comes another freshly minted Hamlet to confound our expectations. Robert Icke’s high-tech, contemporary take at London’s Almeida Theatre is notable for its use of surveillance technology – there are 12 screens incorporated into Hildegard Bechtler’s set – news footage and live transmission of actors in close-up.

For this, Icke and Bechtler recruited the internationally renowned video designer Tal Yarden, whose work with the Belgian director-designer team of Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld has been acclaimed all over Europe.

Tal Yarden

Yarden’s coup de theatre at the Almeida is the revelation of the ghost of Hamlet’s father on CCTV. “We’ve also used news bulletins to relay Hamlet’s situation, as well as a report on the funeral of the dead king,” says the New York-based Yarden. “I did a lot of the pre-production filming in a disused detention centre in London, with many corridors and cells, which represents the castle in Elsinore.”

A film-maker by training, Yarden has spent the last two decades working mostly in the theatre and, more than anyone, has continued to explore ways of adapting cinematic techniques to his theatrical commissions.

He says: “Audiences are very familiar with a cinematic language that frames the face, the gaze and interpersonal communication in order to promote intimacy between the audience and the protagonists. We are using the tools of cinema to enable actors to work with a much more specific and intimate physicality and voice.

“I like to think that cinema has a wonderful opportunity to connect with people by bringing its tool set to the live stage.”

Yarden’s early career was rooted in experimental film-making and performance art in downtown New York in the 1980s. He worked as a film editor and taught himself video-making in order to break into the music video business. He shot videos for a number of alternative bands of the time, including 10,000 Maniacs, and made short films to enhance the work of the New York-based choreographers Stephen Petronio and Reza Abdoh, who died of Aids in 1995.

He says his career in the theatre started to take off after he met Van Hove in 2000, shortly before the Belgian became director of Toneelgroep in Amsterdam. “The past aesthetic experiences of Ivo and Jan were very similar to mine. We were all strongly influenced by performance art, so there was a shared vocabulary from the moment we met.”

The Crucible on Broadway in 2016. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Their first collaboration was a radical reworking of the musical Rent in the Netherlands in Dutch. In the original, long-running Broadway production, the character of Mimi almost dies but is miraculously resurrected. In Van Hove’s version, Mimi dies in a pitiless video account by Yarden. Not feeling it necessary to please the audience is one of Yarden and Van Hove’s shared objectives.

“I’ve done around 40 productions with Ivo, many of them in Europe, including Shakespeare and opera. Our process is different from other directors; we allow ourselves a long gestation period prior to rehearsals, sometimes as much as a year and a half, during which we play around with ideas. He is very free about me going off and trying things out. One of the key things for me is always to understand what the director is after, and to try to serve that.”

For The Crucible at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway last year, the trio received mixed reviews for their supernatural, modern-dress version, set in a present-day classroom, in which Yarden managed to find a way to make it appear that the scribbles on the blackboard had come to life, and flown off into space. The New York Times described his effects as “uncanny.”

Last year, the same team’s 2015 Broadway production of Lazarus, inspired by the music of David Bowie, came to London. The reviews may have been mixed – the Observer’s Susannah Clapp described it as “an extended pop video, long on style but short on wit” – but for Yarden it was an experience he will never forget.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with my childhood hero, at what turned out to be the end of his life. I showed him [Bowie] a lot of my ideas prior to the start of rehearsals, and he was very open to what made sense and what didn’t make sense. He told the creative team not to worry about whether or not it was a clear narrative. He felt we should trust the material and go with our instincts.”

Lazarus, starring Michael C Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso, which premiered in New York in 2015 before its London transfer last year. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The show he says he most enjoyed working on in recent times was The Damned, based on the 1969 Luchino Visconti film of the same name, which he, Van Hove and Versweyveld staged for the Comedie-Francaise in Paris last summer. The Guardian said the production excelled “theatrically, technically, spatially and musically”.

Yarden explains: “We used live cameras on stage to show the actors in close-up, and at the same time a live movie unfolded throughout the action on a vast LED screen. It was a similar sort of thing that I’d used in Kings of War at the Barbican earlier last year, only I carried it to the next level. The discovery I made on The Damned was that I could trick the eye, which proved to be quite a disorienting experience for the audience.”

More recently he was engaged by director Sarna Lapine to create distinctive visuals for her revival of Sunday in the Park With George at the reopened Hudson Theatre in New York.

“Sarna approached me after seeing Lazarus, which she found exciting. I didn’t know Sunday in the Park so I listened to the soundtrack, read the book, researched Georges Seurat [the 19th-century French artist upon whom the musical is based] and looked at what other designers had done with it. I wanted to find a way for the projections to mirror Seurat’s process of discovery, and to take the audience on that creative journey with him.

Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Photo: Christopher Ash

“Luckily, my ideas were very much in line with those of the director and the designer, Beowulf Boritt, which gave us a shared energy flowing into the show. I created a chromolume and a kinetic lighting installation right above the audience, which have been well received.”

How mindful is Yarden of eclipsing other aspects of the performance with his eye-catching interventions?

“Whatever I do has to blend in very closely with the lighting, the set design, costume, direction and the performance as a whole. I’m always mindful of the total experience the audience is going to inhabit, not just my contribution. I’m rarely happy with anything I do. I always think things can be refined and improved. It’s a race to complement what the director is doing right down to the last possible moment.

“The advances in technology have made it possible to achieve results in a shorter amount of time. Technology has come on so fast that I now have the tools to shift colours and move images around during the tech, as well as react to other components such as lighting and costumes. It’s not dissimilar to a group of musicians getting together in a recording studio and working out how they are going to produce a piece of music, with all its textures and layers.

“We have many tools now to enable us to deepen the connection with our audience. In a landscape where the boundaries between fiction and reality become more porous daily, artists are naturally reshaping the theatrical experience for the benefit of the audience.”

Hamlet is at the Almeida Theatre, London, until April 15

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