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A Review of the Best of Online Theatre, by Bella (Year 13)

“The global pandemic has blasted the theatre industry as we know it apart. For many, the future is looking grim and the world of pre-covid live performance seems a long way off. But one of the positives to emerge from the lockdown is the release of productions on digital platforms for a wider audience to enjoy, and the new breed of Zoom plays such as those emerging on BBC’s ‘Unprecedented’. Here is a roundup of some of the theatre productions I’ve seen so far.

National theatre at home went off with a roaring start with their 2011 hit, One Man, Two Guvnors. Well, not quite. The first few minutes of this production seemed to sag, before it rapidly turned into something else entirely and had my whole family in stitches for the remainder of the play. A masterclass in physical comedy from the entire cast, none more so than James Corden who shines as the disastrous Frances Henshall.

Apparently household names such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller and Danny Boyle merit the creature rolling around onstage for the first half an hour of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein. Although the performances of the creature are impassioned in both versions (with the leads swapping between the creature and Frankenstein), the vastness of the Olivier seemed to drown out much of the subtlety and left it feeling static and disappointingly grey.

Although both actors demonstrated their physical capabilities in Frankenstein, they were overshadowed by ballet principle Edward Watson’s incredible genesis as Gregor Samsa in the Royal Ballet’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. A strikingly spare set immediately transports us into the monotonous suffocating world of the Samsas, a perfect arena for the unimaginable genius of Watson as he contorts his body with a terrifying grace into something so totally alien you forget you are watching a human dance. Most memorably, we watch Watson writhe in blackish brown liquid that eventually comes to cover the whole stage like something out of a horror movie. Totally terrifying, yet totally mesmerizing.

Another form-breaking performance, The Encounter is a solo piece by Complicité’s Simon McBurney which follows the journey of photographer Loren McIntyre as he travels into the depths of the Amazon to find the lost Mayoruna tribe. Using a sparse utilitarian set, the main focus is binaural sound, a technology that places the audio spatially around an audience member using headphones, allowing for a far more sensory experience. It is essentially a very fancy radio play, but that’s not to diminish the role of the visual as we are plunged deep into the mystery of a world we know so little about in order to reach “the beginning”. Throughout, McBurney plays with our conceptions of reality with tender segments of his young daughter interrupting his recordings in the middle of the night. McBurney taps into the idea that the interplay of realities is in essence, the magic of theatre.

Emma Rice’s Wise Children also explores the core of theatricality and celebrates it to its fullest. A big, bawdy tangle of showbiz, family and forgiveness, it captures the spirit of Angela Carter’s brilliant final novel. I am unashamedly biased towards this play; I loved the book and was blown away by this fabulous production at the Old Vic two years ago. I giggled with glee when I found out I could watch it again, albeit on BBC iPlayer. Emma Rice has gathered an unfair reputation in certain circles for her controversy at the Globe, but she remains to me one of the most exciting directors creating at the moment. The show totally embraces its own ridiculousness but does not shy away from the darker aspects of the story.

Perhaps my favourite so far has been Barber Shop Chronicles, another National Theatre output. Writer Inua Ellams uses the location of six different barber shops across Africa and London to explore themes of race, identity and masculinity. It is a dynamic celebration of African cultures, and it challenges the homogenised presentation of the “African male” on stage. Ellams’ writing, taken from 60 hours of recordings is witty and richly poetic, and the 12-strong ensemble are never lacklustre. Sensitive, playful and life-affirming, this production felt to me exactly what we needed in such testing times.”