Friday, 9 May 2014

Tempests in April: Filming and King Lear

This month's activity has been dominated by directing my first short film. Film has never been a medium that has particularly grabbed me - I'm naturally drawn to the life and energy that theatre brings. Plus one of the joys of theatre is the rehearsal period which is much shorter or non-existent in film. Since the end of last year though, I have been subscribed to a website called MUBI, which provides you with 30 films to watch at any one time, introducing you to great and innovative cinema from around the world (highly recommended!). This has helped develop my interest in film but it is only really once you make a film that you start to really appreciate the art form. And this month I can safely say that I have found a new passion!

When I first agreed to direct the film I naively thought that it would be fairly straightforward! "Yes, there will be a few technical things you don't understand", I thought, "but how hard can it be?" Turns out quite hard! This was one of the steepest learning curves I have ever experienced but also one of the most rewarding.

The biggest thing I learnt was the remarkable level of preparation - both practical and creative - that goes into the making of a film. When working to a very limited time frame - (we had one day to shoot in) - and limited budget - (essentially nonexistent!) - planning the shoot in meticulous detail is a must. This meant storyboarding. And storyboarding. And more storyboarding. As someone for whom drawing is not a particular strong point, showing 60 odd hand-drawn pictures to a production team was an experience that resulted in multiple parts of my insides dying a slow, shameful death! But once I got over my shame, I realised what a brilliantly useful tool the storyboard is. In simple terms, it literally allows you to see the film before you've even shot it. It allows you, as the director, to visualise every single cut and change of angle. Visualising a film to this level of detail I found was a skill that needed practice in itself. It took hours of reading and re-reading the script, followed by long sessions with my eyes tightly closed imaging exactly how the finished film would look on the screen. I found that watching 5-10 minute clips of films that I admire and imagining what the storyboard for those would look like was a really useful starting point and would recommend that to any first-time film maker.

After a few drafts and some discussions, we produced a storyboard that we were happy with. The next step was to use the storyboard to work out exactly what shots were required and what order it made most sense to shoot them in. This film had the added complication of the actor (also me!) playing two different characters who talk to each other!

All of the pre-production headaches, however, meant that we arrived at the studio for the shoot armed with a full shot list and a storyboard. Both things I had never created before and both of which enabled us to shoot a 5 minute film in less than 6 hours - and that's including a brief hiatus when the fuse blew and we lost all lighting in the studio!

As you might imagine the film hasn't turned out exactly as I had envisaged but for a first film I am really pleased with the result. What made the experience all the more special was that an abridged version of the film was screened at the Raphael Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum throughout the bank holiday weekend. It was a peculiarly humbling experience to see our film in such an impressive space surrounded by Raphael's monumental tapestry cartoons.

The film was produced as part of a project with the MA Costume Design students at the London College of Fashion based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The main focus of the film is, therefore, on showing the beautiful Prospero costume (designed by Pallavi Patel) in action. Pallavi has been absolutely fantastic throughout the whole project - she has worked astonishingly hard and I'm incredibly grateful to her both for her superhuman effort and for letting me direct this film. The relationship between a director and a designer is so important and I hope that this will be the start of a long term collaboration between us both in theatre and film!

We are just finishing the sound editing on the full film. As soon as it's ready I'll be sure to bombard you with links to it through various social media channels!

Back to the theatre and it was lovely to see an old friend, Paapa Essiedu, on the NT's Olivier stage in King Lear this month, starring the ubiquitous Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes. Paapa made headlines at the very start of the run when he had to step in mid-performance to replace Sam Troughton's Edmund, after Troughton lost his voice mid-speech. As Mendes said - two of the worst nightmares for an actor occurring on the same night!

This was in many respects a very accomplished rendition of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies - though I do often feel it's more of a joy for the English student than the theatre-maker. As one would imagine, SRB's Lear was played with incredible detail and intelligence - coming into his own in the second half particularly when his portrayal became more subtle and nuanced. I also thought Sam Troughton was excellent as Edmund - now with voice fully intact, he engaged the audience in his evil scheming, whilst his bitterness and resentment towards his brother Edgar (and indeed the whole world) felt very understandable and believable. Stephen Boxer was also exceptional as Gloucester (outshining SRB in my opinion) and the scene between the blinded Gloucester and the mad Lear was undoubtedly the highlight of the production (as indeed, it probably should be).

In fact, most of the performances were pretty strong - with Kate Fleetwood's Goneril being particularly strong out of the three sisters, with Olivia Vinall doing a good job as Cordelia as well. Where I had problems with the production was in the lack of coherency within the world on stage. I really struggled to believe in the setting of the play. The rules that governed it were blurred and uncertain, making the whole production rather fuzzy and disappointing for me.

I don't understand why directors don't seem to realise that the world of the play does not need to be forced into a setting that is directly reminiscent of real-life (whether historical or present). The play exists in a world of it's own, the rules of which should all come from the words of the play. If a world is well conceived there should never be a moment that feels out of place. The director who has really nailed this in recent times is Jamie Lloyd - who, quite rightly, continues to go from success to success.

To use a rather obvious example, it frustrates me when I see a play in which one character attacks another with a 'sword' - which is, in actual fact, a rather pathetic looking knife - when he has an automatic pistol in his pocket and is surrounded by soldiers with machine guns. It immediately and unavoidably creates a moment of ridiculous irony and throws the whole reality of the world into doubt. This is not to say that I don't think we should do modern-dress Shakespeare - I absolutely do! What I'm saying is that if the text says there are swords give the characters swords!! There's absolutely nothing wrong with characters wearing suits but also carrying swords, as long as that is established as a convention of this particular fictional world.

Finally, this next month will see action with my new production company Cyphers. We will be interviewing and auditioning members of the King's Shakespeare Company at King's College London to give them the opportunity to assistant direct and act in our autumn production of Henry V. One of Cyphers' primary aims is to help bridge the gap between professional theatre and student drama - we hope this will be the start of many more collaborations with KSC. Our website is currently under construction but the Facebook ( and Twitter (@CyphersUK) pages are up and running, so 'like' us and follow us for all the latest news! If you are a member of KSC and would like to find out how to get involved, details are available on the Facebook and Twitter pages.

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