Mark Ludmon reviews A Separate Peace by Tom Stoppard performed live via Zoom and directed by Sam Yates starring Jenna Coleman, Denise Gough, Ed Stoppard and David Morrissey.
A Separate Peace
The Remote Read, Zoom
In Tom Stoppard’s short 1964 comedy, A Separate Peace, a man seeks to shield himself from the world outside by isolating himself in a private hospital despite being perfectly fit and well. It was written less than 20 years after the horrors of World War Two, in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world felt on the point of nuclear self-destruction, and, performed live via Zoom 56 years later, it proves to be a perfect story for people living in isolation in the middle of a global pandemic. With a daily stream of news about the impact of the coronavirus, the desire to find an oasis of peace and quiet away from the chaos strikes a poignant chord: “You need never know anything, it doesn’t touch you.”
Inevitably, the staff of the Beechwood Nursing Home plot to find a way to oust this mysterious man, who calls himself John Brown, because spending all your money so you can “do nothing” challenges every convention of a modern capitalist society. However, as the doctor points out, there is a stronger argument that “You’ve got to connect” – a basic human drive, proven by artists’ frustrations and creative responses after the loss of live performance through the shutdown of the theatres.
Alongside a full technical and creative team, director Sam Yates has drawn on the possibilities of video conferencing platform Zoom to make this an intimate and immersive experience. (I watched on a large TV screen, with lights off and curtains drawn, using headphones to cover the shrieks and laughter of my neighbours’ weekly family quiz night, no doubt also on Zoom.) Using the brilliant white background setting, it presents the actors as cut-out upper bodies dressed in black, creating a consistent look and effectively removing any of the distractions that would come from checking out their home décor. Like spotlights, they flicker on and off as they make their entrances and exits, each separate but interacting in their own little rectangles, highlighted with the standard yellow border as they speak. The first in an ongoing series from Curtain Call dubbed The Remote Read, A Separate Peace was billed as a reading but, unlike on stage, the Zoom set-up means scripts are unseen, bringing this close to a fully “staged” online production.
David Morrissey is excellent as John Brown, with a twinkly-eyed charm and bonhomie that mask a spirit broken by life. His main foil is Jenna Coleman’s nurse Maggie, ambivalently torn – like Shakespeare and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – between being his friend and a spy for the authorities. Presented for one night only, the 35-minute show boasts an all-round stellar cast, with further strong performances by Denise Gough as the hospital’s permanently exhausted doctor, Ed Stoppard as the matron and Maggie Service as another nurse.
Technically, the broadcast appeared near perfect, thanks to an extensive team including video designer Andrzej Goulding, sound designer Sam Glossop, lighting designer Nat Green and tech designer Tim Kashani. The fleetingly brief appearance of one of the technicians before the final credits served only to make it even better, reminding us that this was a live performance, that the cast and tech team were bringing it live from their own homes to us sitting in ours. It demonstrates how artists are starting to move away from webinar technology as no more than a weak alternative to live theatre and finding ways to make it fit the form. It also marks a growing trend away from giving creative work away for free – tickets ranged from £7.50 to £20 for last night’s performance, with proceeds going to help stage technicians and creatives forced out of work by Covid-19 as well as The Felix Project food charity. With theatres expected to stay closed for some time to come, A Separate Peace marks the start of what promises to be an exciting series of online productions for our age of isolation.
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