x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Film directors enter stage left

With Woody Allen's forthcoming one-act comedy and Terry Gilliam's successful venture for the English National Opera, a look at other directors who have been moved to expand their repertoires beyond the silver screen.

The director Terry Gilliam has attracted attention with his successful adaptation of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera.
The director Terry Gilliam has attracted attention with his successful adaptation of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera.

No month seems to pass without an announcement of a new stage project from a film director. Most recently, we've had the news that three one-act comedies written by the film directors/writers Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen, titled Relatively Speaking are heading for Broadway. John Turturro will direct the production.

But should New Yorkers be running out for tickets? Judging by other recent productions of silver-screen directors turning to stage, it's hard to say.

Terry Gilliam is the latest director famous for his work on the silver screen to be employed by the English National Opera to bring their cinematic aesthetic to the London stage. His adaptation of Hector Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, which ran throughout May, placed the story in Germany during the rise of fascism.

Given the former Monty Python's recent patchy record behind the camera - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Tideland both disappointed - the expectation was that the opera would be heavy on visual style and light on narrative cohesion.

The play delivered on visual flair, featuring a bewildering mix of projected images, including scenes from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, great production design and smartly chosen costumes, particularly one red-attired seductress based on a painting by Otto Dix. More surprisingly, it delivered on substance as well, showing Faust, played by a spiky-haired Peter Hoare, being swept along by the rising tide of fascism after making a deal with the devil in return for an easy earthly life.

The production put the skills that make Gilliam much-admired as a film director to good use. The former Monty Python member has never been noted for bringing out great performances from actors, and Tideland highlighted the difficulty he has with close-ups and the modern trend for hand-held digital cameras. He's far more comfortable when asking the audience to sit back and enjoy the show.

The success of Gilliam's opera debut is in sharp contrast to the Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis's failure to master the art. His recent ENO production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia was a strange mix of cinema and theatre, with the director making the odd choice of showing the flashback sequences on a huge cinema screen that would descend on to the stage at regular intervals. The film within the opera was also in Italian with English subtitles, while the singers on the stage sang in English. There was a serious lack of movement on both stage and screen, suggesting that Figgis is uncomfortable directing his opera stars.

Given Figgis's recent fascination with digital cinema, it's no surprise that he would be more comfortable pushing the boundaries of film than theatre. His most interesting work since his Oscar success with Leaving Las Vegas has been Timecode in 2000, a film that featured a four-way split-screen showing different rooms in a building that gets hit by an earthquake. The audio on each scene was turned up and down, depending on which room Figgis wanted to highlight. The film also had different versions as Figgis toured live performances where the sound and score changed depending on the choices the director made each time.

Figgis has gone on record as stating that he will never use traditional film stock again as he became more entrenched in the ease of use of digital technology. As he has done so, his stories became much more character rather than plot driven and he has come to work with far fewer actors. At the ENO he seemed to carry this philosophy through to the stage. There was minimal directing of actors and rather than a stage piece, it had the feel of a movie supported by musical interludes. The ambition of the director was just too small, and he seemed hesitant at pushing his performers.

He's not alone in struggling with a different medium. When movie directors take to the stage there are generally more misses than hits. At the ENO the trend started successfully when the late Anthony Minghella put on Madam Butterfly in 2005. But for every Minghella there has been a Sally Potter, who felt the ire of critics for her version of Georges Bizet's Carmen in 2007.

Of course, it's not just the ENO that has been attracting cinema directors to the stage in the hope that fans of their films will pay the higher price for stage tickets. The most notable director to successfully work with both film and opera is Baz Luhrmann. His films such as Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet followed the lead of his Sydney Opera House productions of La Bohème and A Midsummer Night's Dream in being heavily musical and highly flamboyant. Before the catastrophic Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Julie Taymor had had both stage and screen success. Her adaptation of The Lion King for stage wowed.

Away from the musical, the phenomenon is just as strong. The Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle rather than Johnny Lee Millar or Benedict Cumberbatch was the name used to sell tickets for the production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London. The play was far darker than any of his films, including 28 Days Later, but the British director retained his ability for making characters usually deemed outsiders appealing.

Boyle will now work with Stephen Daldry, who adapted his hit film Billy Elliot successfully to the stage, on the Olympic Opening Ceremony in London. Boyle carries the title artistic producer, while Daldry is one of four executive producers of the sporting event.

The Coen Brothers were less successful when they took the radio drama Theatre of the New Ear to the stage, despite employing the talents of Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage. The play designed for the radio was given a handful of public airings. As it did not originate as a piece of theatre, the staging became a glorified reading, making it hard to assess the theatre-directing skills of the pair. Nonetheless, when Ethan Coen wrote three one-act plays that were performed in New York under the title Offices, the movie director chose not to direct the plays himself.

Theatre directors going on to make films is a far more established practice, with Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner and Patrice Chereau springing to mind. It's much more surprising when a cinema director will put his reputation on the line to helm a live performance. When a director feted for his cinema work sells tickets on his name for a theatrical performance it naturally arouses curiosity - much in the same way that it does when actors such as Keira Knightley and Keanu Reeves make the switch. People show up to see whether they will sink or swim. There is a certain type of Schadenfreude that emerges when movie directors head for the stage, but it just makes it all the more impressive when directors such as Gilliam make the transition effortlessly.

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