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Switched on: shows such as Fleabag and Chimerica prove TV and theatre can inspire each other

Chimerica is being serialised on Channel 4
Chimerica is being serialised on Channel 4

It has been 88 years since theatre was first broadcast on television and the relationship between the two has not always been easy. As Lucy Kirkwood’s Olivier-winning play Chimerica is serialised on Channel 4, Fergus Morgan speaks to directors, commissioners and writers about spanning the divide

On the afternoon of July 14, 1930, history was made at the headquarters of the Baird Company at 133 Long Acre. It marked the first live broadcast of a television drama by the BBC – a production of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 three-hander The Man With the Flower in His Mouth. The show was half an hour long, starred Earle Grey, Gladys Young and Lionel Millard, and sparked a relationship between theatre and television that has lasted ever since.

In subsequent decades, live theatre and theatrical adaptations were a major feature on television, broadcast regularly in designated slots, first on the BBC, then on ITV and other channels. Channel 4’s versions of The Oresteia in 1983 – an adaptation of Peter Hall’s 1981 National Theatre production – and The Mahabharata – an adaptation of Peter Brook’s 1985 stage epic – are still considered some of the most daring examples of broadcasting ever.

Complicated couplings

The relationship has endured its rocky patches. There were worries at first that TV would leech the public away from theatre, and although that largely proved unfounded, anxieties about the movement of writers, actors and audiences between the two still persist. In 2013, then director of the National Theatre Nicholas Hytner lambasted the BBC for not pulling its weight when it came to supporting theatre – he accused the Corporation of having a “Downton-ratings mentality”, and argued it should be working far more closely with arts institutions across the country.

Today, the relationship seems a lot healthier. Theatre is regularly finding its way on to the small screen in different guises, from the blockbuster King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Richard Eyre for BBC2 in 2018, to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s phenomenally successful Fleabag, and BBC Arts’ Performance Live strand of programmes, which include artists from Kate Tempest and 20 Stories High to Slung Low. Different stories, told on different scales and in different styles, but all with one thing in common: they all originated on stage.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, Soho Playhouse, New York
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, Soho Playhouse, New York

“I’m always on the lookout for pieces that might work on screen,” says Emma Cahusac, the BBC Arts commissioning editor responsible for theatre and dance. “I was on the hunt last week looking for shows, and next week I am too. There’s a genuine commitment to making these sorts of programmes.”

It’s not just the number of stories transferring that’s impressive, though, it’s the variety – everything from experimental fringe fare to Olivier award-winning plays are now shifting from stage to screen.

“There’s a big-ticket item, such as the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake or Rob Icke’s Hamlet – wonderful pieces that not a lot of people will get to see – and then there are riskier, bolder shows from new voices that we should be paying attention to,” says Cahusac. “We try to make sure we are working with people across the board, so that we have a real range of content.”

In 2017, Javaad Alipoor took his hard-hitting lecture-performance The Believers Are But Brothers to the Edinburgh Fringe, performing it once a day in Summerhall’s TechCube space. It is a daring show – an insightful look at online radicalisation, which broke down boundaries between the actor and the audience, with part of it taking place on a WhatsApp group chat. It transferred to the Bush Theatre in 2018, and in March this year, an adaptation of the show, commissioned by Cahusac, was broadcast on BBC4.

The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo: The Other Richard

Other shows, by comparison, are commercial juggernauts. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, which was a huge hit for the Almeida Theatre in 2013, is currently on screens in a four-part Channel 4 prime-time adaptation starring Alessandro Nivola, Cherry Jones, Sophie Okonedo and F Murray Abraham. It sees the UK broadcaster embracing the binge-watch box-set model – although it’s going out week by week on terrestrial TV, all of the episodes are available to stream online.

And then there are more traditional examples of stage-to-screen adaptations. Captured performances are more commonly found in cinemas than on TV thanks to the success of projects such as NT Live, but they do appear on the small screen too. Director Robert Icke’s extraordinary Almeida production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, for example, was filmed during its West End run at the Harold Pinter Theatre and broadcast on BBC2 in March last year – another commission by Cahusac. In June, Phyllida Lloyd’s ground-breaking all-female Shakespeare trilogy found its way on to BBC4 and iPlayer.

All of those shows occupy entirely different televisual niches, but started in the theatre, and the creatives behind all three faced significant challenges in adapting their work for the small screen.

“You want to stay true to the performance, and you don’t just want to turn it into a piece of TV drama, because it does have a very different feel,” says Cahusac on the adaptation process. “You go on a creative journey, so that when it lands as a piece of television, it has something special about it.”

For Kirkwood, the biggest challenge in adapting Chimerica for the screen was ensuring that her work, and its underlying comparison of American and Chinese political systems, was still relevant in 2019 – and that meant updating it for the post-Trump, post-Brexit world.

Channel 4 has commissioned a drama based on Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (pictured). Photo: Tristram Kenton

“It was what has happened in politics since I wrote the play in 2013 that convinced me there was something to be gained in adapting the play,” she says. “Brexit and the Trump election in particular complicated the play’s assumptions that Western democracy is a superior system in a way that was interesting to me. It gave me a reason to go back to it, to have that argument with myself.”

“Trump and his mandate are vivid enough to make that counterpoint [between America and China] more strongly,” she says. “It’s awful to use these dramaturgy terms to describe reality, but he became an important antagonist.”

For Alipoor, meanwhile, political relevance was less of an issue – his show was written after the seismic shocks of Brexit and Trump. His biggest challenge was instead one of form: he had to make sure the boundary-breaking boldness – the WhatsApp group, the audience interaction – of The Believers Are But Brothers came across as well on screen as it did on stage.

“I had to keep in my head the radically different audience experience,” he says. “I had to think in quite a fine-grained way about the different formal properties of the two mediums, and what it feels like to watch TV compared to theatre. I had to let go of some stuff and go harder at other stuff. Because the interactive nature of the stage version wasn’t going to work, I dug deeper into the idea of screens and had some fun with that.”

It was also tough for Alipoor psychologically: “In theatre we’ve got press-night nerves, a press night party, then a post-show dip,” he explains. “In TV, everything’s done and put to bed at least three or four days before it airs, so in the couple of days before it went out, I was rattling around with the unholy combination of pre-show nerves and post-show dip. It was terrible, man. Terrible.”

He continues: “When it came on, with my friends and family there, it felt like a real celebration. I got this mega adrenalin rush when it first cut to the show, and then about five minutes in, with everyone watching and engrossed, I couldn’t wait to get back to the bar. I know it word for word, shot for shot.”

Putting the stage on screen

When it comes to capturing theatre productions on film, the process and consequent challenges are entirely different. Rhodri Huw directed the performance captures of both the Almeida’s Hamlet and the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy.

There are, he says, practical challenges – how to fit expensive camera equipment into theatres not designed for them – and artistic challenges – negotiating the relationship with the theatrical creative team – but the principle difficulty is in recreating the live nature of a performance on screen.

“The main thing is that we don’t get in the way of the performances or the audience,” he says. “You don’t want to take huge swathes of seats away or get right in the eye line of actors. We want to capture the performance, we don’t want to be part of it, and we’ve developed a cinematic language to reflect that.”

But with the challenges of adaptation – whatever shape, whatever size, and whatever style – also come enormous opportunities: to reach new audiences, to extend a show’s reach, and to air ideas on a much larger scale. It is, to an extent, simply a question of numbers: even the biggest theatrical production can’t come close to reaching as many people as television.

The stage version of Chimerica opened at the 325-seat Almeida Theatre, where it ran for seven weeks. It subsequently transferred to the West End, where it ran for 11 weeks at the 796-seat Harold Pinter Theatre. If every seat was filled for every performance, that’s more than 88,000 people who were able to see one of the most acclaimed plays of recent times. The viewing figures for the first episode of Channel 4’s adaptation were more than five times that number.

Likewise, more people will have watched The Believers Are But Brothers on BBC4 or iPlayer than will probably ever see it in a theatre. The same can be said of Icke’s Hamlet. Even the smallest of small-screen slots is bigger than the biggest stage.

But it’s also a question of geography. The Believers Are But Brothers has toured the UK extensively since its successful run in Edinburgh in 2017, but neither Hamlet nor Chimerica did. Both ran in Islington and in the West End – two theatres in central London, only a few miles apart. The TV versions will have been watched across the UK, and beyond.

Then, of course, there is the issue of longevity. Theatre, discounting long-running West End musicals, is an intrinsically ephemeral medium. It lasts for as long as a production runs. TV is not – programmes remain on streaming services, on DVDs and in archives, potentially forever.

A widening audience

This radical shift in scope is a good thing for audiences. Just like NT Live, theatre-to-TV adaptations allow areas of the country and sections of the population that are underserved by the theatre industry to experience the same work in a different context – it broadens conversations and, in a way, democratises theatre. Now, the entire country can enjoy Fleabag, not just those lucky enough to catch Waller-Bridge’s show at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe or in London’s Soho Theatre shortly after.

But more theatrical adaptations on TV is also a good thing for artists and theatremakers. With a wider audience comes wider recognition, both publicly and professionally, and that recognition can open doors. Kirkwood now has a high-profile, prime-time TV series under her belt. Alipoor can add TV producer to theatre director, writer and actor. The Almeida can point to a string of successful TV shows that originated on its stage. Those facts can be put on posters, applications, and in pitches – and they make a difference.

A lot of these arguments are the same ones used in support of live cinema screenings of theatre productions, but with television, there’s an added twist – licence fee payments, channel subscription fees and internet bills aside, it’s entirely free to watch. And that radically alters the relationship between artist and audience.

“When you start to drill down into it, there’s a real sense with theatre of people making a clear decision to opt in,” says Alipoor. “They buy a ticket and commit themselves. That doesn’t exist with TV. If something’s not interesting, they can just switch it off.”

Alexander Zeldin’s Love was brought to the screen by the BBC, the National Theatre and Cuba Pictures
Alexander Zeldin’s Love was brought to the screen by the BBC, the National Theatre and Cuba Pictures

Helping theatremakers navigate complexities like this is one of the motivations behind The Space – the agency established by the BBC and Arts Council England with the express aim of promoting digital engagement across the arts – Performance Live, the strand of arts commissioning produced by the BBC, Arts Council England and the Battersea Arts Centre that has brought programmes such as Alexander Zeldin’s Love, Ishy Din’s Taxi Tales, and Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere to the small screen.

If big-budget adaptations such as Chimerica and King Lear, and high-profile performance captures such as Hamlet are at the more mainstream and conventional end of theatre-to-TV adaptations, then The Space and Performance Live are at the cutting edge, bringing experimental and often strongly political fringe work to a wider television audience and exploring the possibilities of the two mediums.

“Part of the plan behind Performance Live was to upskill the theatre sector,” says Thea Jones, a producer on the strand. “Of the 12 shows that have been broadcast so far, seven have been produced by the artists or the companies themselves. They are theatre companies turning themselves into TV companies, putting teams together to write the show, to make the show, and learning all the skills that involves.”

She continues: “There’s a rigour to how you tell a story on TV that doesn’t exist in theatre. When you think about dramaturgy, for example, if something interesting hasn’t happened by six minutes in, you’re more likely to get people turning over. There’s no bagginess, because you can’t afford it.”

Cross-sector learning

It’s not just about gaining practical skills, though. For a lot of the creatives involved, the Performance Live shows were their first experiences of making work for TV, and that, says Jones, involved learning how to navigate a radically different production culture as well.

“Theatre is slow,” she says. “We love sitting in a room talking for a long time, and we have the capacity to go down blind alleys and spend time working out what it is we want to say. TV is so fast and those conversations can seem transactional, when they’re not. It’s also a much more siloed way of making work – there will never be a moment when everyone working on a project is in the same room at the same time, unlike in theatre.”

The process works both ways, though. “What I’ve heard from people more on the TV side, is that they really enjoy being more creatively involved, in making a programme that’s not by numbers,” she says. “They’re consistently thrilled that theatre artists are so totally on it as well, that they never have to stop for someone fluffing their lines because it’s in their muscle memory.”

The importance of that cross-pollination, of TV learning from theatre and theatre learning from TV, is crucial for Cahusac. It’s how artists working in both worlds will adapt to technological advances, and how the relationship that began at the Baird Company’s headquarters 80 years ago can continue to thrive.

“It’s absolutely about working with artists in a collaborative way,” Cahusac says. “I think we are very much in a digital age for dance and theatre, and learning how to make your own content and deliver it is very useful.”

She adds: “And we all learn things. It is hard work, and it is about trust, and putting yourself out of your comfort zone at times, but everybody at the end has something that they’re thrilled and excited by. And that’s even before the audience gets to see it.”

Chimerica is on Channel 4 and streaming online at channel4.com/programmes/chimerica

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