Words by Elijah Arief
Theatre and technology are two things which seem incongruent. Technology seems to create a barrier between us and the art, it is a wall of separation that leaves the viewers with an impersonal experience. We see this mostly with television and film, though we are watching the story we are not directly a part of the journey. If theatre has taught me anything, it is that there is nothing like being in a small sweaty room with a pint of warm beer with an actor screaming directly into my face to plunge me deep into the story that the artists are trying to create. In that moment I am at one with play, and the play is at one with me. But of course, times have changed. Every August I am in that tightly packed room, warm beer in hand and losing myself to a play that I paid £5 entry too, getting enraptured or disgusted, depending on the play itself. This August I am getting the Shakespeare kick that I need every now and then, but from the window of my laptop screen. Technology and theatre have blended this year and let me tell you it is wonderful.
The Show Must Go Online is a passion project created by Robert Myles as a direct response to the pandemic. It has its platform on YouTube and live streams theatre created from Zoom calls, with its primary focus on producing and showing Shakespeare.
Myles quotes “Shakespeare is for everyone. Being in a time of crisis and isolation, I believe it is more important than ever”.
The platform puts on a show once a week, with the cast and crew only having two and half days of rehearsal before the Zoom calls are live-streamed. The critical response has been phenomenal, with the platform winning two OnComm awards and having amassed over 16,000 views from sixty different countries. In the YouTube comment section, we see the ‘Digital Groundlings’ react and debate when the show is performed, which in of itself is a form of entertainment that anyone can participate in.
I am reminded of going to the Globe for the first time and getting to fully experience Elizabethan theatre and loving the experience of audience participation. It is soothing to know that even within these times that tradition can continue. Furthermore, the Show Must Go Online is keen on gender representation and including underrepresented groups, with a beautifully diverse cast to prove to us at home that Shakespeare truly is for everybody.
The play I tuned into this week was Hamlet, and I was incredibly excited to see how one of my favourite plays would be adapted into a digital format. I was not disappointed. The show begins with a fifteen-minute introduction by guest speaker Dr David Sterling Brown, a Shakespeare and premodern critical studies scholar who gives us a fascinating insight into Hamlets inherent whiteness and opens our eyes to view the play itself through this lens. This was an amazing touch and I felt thoroughly engaged by Dr Browns analyses and felt moved to read more about race within Shakespeare. Dr Brown set the tone for what would be four hours of some of the most innovative theatre I’ve ever seen.
Brilliant and charismatic, the play seems to be self-aware in the knowledge that it is being performed via Zoom, but that in no way cheapens or takes away from the serious nature of certain themes within Hamlet. The actors are dressed in their own costuming and their own makeup, which helps personalise and distinguish the character beautifully and I loved seeing the different costumes each actor could present us with, it really helped each actor to step into that role in such a way that was completely unique to themselves alone. It would be very hard to feel alienated by this version of the play, despite the technological wall.
The simplified lighting cues via torches, and the use of the Zoom green screen background feature made the play easy to follow, which can be a relief for those who find Shakespeare difficult or overwhelming. One example is the way Old Hamlets ghost was presented to us; the actor used the light cues in such a way that it seemed as if the ghost was about to jump out of my laptop screen. It was then that I was reminded of the fact that Hamlet is first and foremost a ghost story, and the cast remind us of this eagerly which excited me greatly because I love horror theatre! One worry that I had was that the show would be presented like film, however as soon as I realised every single actor had turned their home into their stage, I was reminded of the heart of theatre. That heart representing the concept that anything can be your stage. With enough creativity and passion theatre can live on in any medium that it wishes, and just because I could not see Hamlets actor perform his infamous soliloquy live on stage does not mean that did not translate well live on YouTube.
The world of theatre is changing as we know it, and we are entering a new and strange world when it comes to the arts. Companies such as The Show Must Go Online are keeping up with the times and showing us that the arts will continue to thrive even in the darkest of times. I encourage all Shakespeare fans to support this wonderful company and not to give up on theatre. It is a new world, but I am forever the optimist.