My experience of theatre has so far been limited to my involvement in amateur productions for a local drama school, several musicals and the occasional dance recital. I prefer going to the movies to be quite honest, but my perceptions of this long-established mode of representation are beginning to change.
A few months ago, I attended a performance of Measure for Measure at Belvoir St Theatre. Our discussion in class about the differences between stage and screen as identified in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, inspired me to rethink my experience of the play.
Benjamin talks about the ‘aura’ of a work of art, which he defines as its unique presence in a particular time and space. He argues that reproductions of a work of art will pale in comparison because they lack the authenticity imbued in the work in its original form. This is interesting to consider in terms of the works of Shakespeare, which have been revered and reproduced in a multitude of forms since they were written.
The longevity of his works is contingent on their ability to be continually transformed according to changes in directors, actors, and the historical and cultural context in which they are performed. With that in mind, I would argue that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is in fact enhanced through reproduction. The appreciation of the audience can evolve due to the ability to perceive an old work in a fresh new light. Measure for Measure is a perfect example of this.
The recent production utilised new media technologies to illuminate themes in Shakespeare’s work such as corrupt politicians the pervasiveness of surveillance by the state, and moral ambiguity, in order for a modern audience to better appreciate their relevance to contemporary society. Rather than the traditional mode of theatrical representation with a stationary stage facing the audience, the stage could rotate 360°. In addition, two large screens were mounted on either side of the stage to broadcast close-ups captured by secondary actors with a handheld camera.
The performance felt like a hybrid of cinema and theatre, in that the expressiveness and totality of action allowed in the theatre were brought to life, but at the same time the intimacy allowed by cinematic techniques were integrated in a way that enriched the whole experience. The successful reproduction of works of art has been enhanced by the utilisation of digital technology into their display. This is an evolution that is more than welcome, as the rejuvenation of familiar works such as the plays of Shakespeare will ensure their continued appreciation by audiences.