Sam Yates’ Zoom production opens up some really exciting avenues for using the structures and strictures of technology as new kinds of found theatre spaces.
The black box has become a white square. On four panels of a Zoom webinar – those little segments now numbingly familiar to people working from home – four actors perform Tom Stoppard’s gentle short A Separate Peace, written for television in 1964.
It is part of a new series of play readings called The Remote Read, in aid of various charities – this particular production raises money for The Felix Project, which rescues surplus food and distributes it to vulnerable people. The remaining ticket proceeds will benefit creatives and technicians forced out of work by the crisis.
David Morrissey – top left panel – plays John Brown, a man who checks himself into a nursing home even though there’s nothing wrong with him. His nurse Jenna Coleman, occupying the panel next to him, befriends him and eventually becomes his kindly confessor. Denise Gough, underneath, plays his doctor, while Ed Stoppard’s matron shares bottom right with Maggie Service as a bemused receptionist.
What sets this production apart from a lot of other streamed work is that it is a one-off, performed live with the actors at home. Director Sam Yates embraces video-conferencing as a medium, rather than trying to ignore its limitations. It has been designed and directed especially for the form.
When scenes end, the actors reach up to the camera and whiteout. Sam Glossop’s subtle sound design plays a huge part in making this feel like theatre – a constant accompaniment of birdsong and music makes it more than a Stoppard-scripted Zoom meeting.
Sam Glossop’s subtle sound design plays a huge part in making this feel like theatre
In its liveness, too, it has all those micro-details that are native to theatre, but transposed to a slightly different format. The slight fumbling of a line by one actor, the stylised scene changes that refocus our attention. Even the split-second flash of a stage manager and her surprised expression just before ‘The End’ came on screen – was it a technical gremlin, or a subtle reminder that this is a piece of live theatre?
The play itself is slight in many ways, and nowhere near one of Stoppard’s better works – more like something he might have exhaled one afternoon when bored. But it’s a playful choice: on the one hand, the idea of someone willingly checking themselves into a hospital when there’s nothing wrong with them seems a pretty dumb thing to do right now. On the other, the play is all about how desperately we want to go back to happier times, and the lengths we’d go to for a bit of normality and peace.
Plus, there are occasional glimpses of dark depths, especially in Brown, played as carefully as ever by Morrissey who makes him just a little too breezy and pleasant for comfort. Coleman is a great counterpart: gentle, quizzical and knowing.
For all its wispiness, and despite the lightness of touch with which Yates directs it, there’s an after-effect here that’s difficult to place. A bit of melancholy, a bit of hope. It feels like theatre, and it doesn’t. But either way, it opens up some really exciting avenues for using the structures and strictures of technology as new kinds of found theatre spaces.