INTERVIEW: Producer John Wyver on the making of The Winter's Tale – the first RSC production to debut on the BBC
FOR the past 20 years John Wyver has helped create screen versions of RSC live productions. Ahead of The Winter’s Tale premiere on the BBC to mark Shakespeare’s birthday later this month, the screen arts producer and academic tells Gill Sutherland about his fascinating work.
You’re a professor of screen arts, which sounds niche. What was your route into that?
I’ve spent a lot of time being a television producer and having an academic interest in the ways in which the arts are presented on television and in other screen forms. I started in fact as a journalist writing for Time Out magazine a long time ago.
Quite soon after that, I was writing regularly about television. I had a strong interest in drama and arts programmes in particular. I formed an independent production company at the start of Channel 4, when it was possible to do that. There was no independent production industry at that time and Channel 4 brought that into existence, essentially.
I was one of many people who formed a little company and I’ve been making art programmes ever since. I started working with the RSC in 1999, when I worked with Gregory Doran producing the Channel 4 production of his version of Macbeth with Tony Sher and Harriet Walter.
I made three film versions of those production in the 2000s and then Greg asked me to produce the Live From series, starting in 2013. All that time I’ve still been writing about television as an academic and I have a research position at Westminster, though I don’t do regular teaching.
Your first love was the screen – are you a theatre fan?
I went to the theatre a lot but I was never professionally involved. I’d done a lot of theatre at university as production manager and as an electrician. I spent a summer in Edinburgh on the Fringe being a spark on student shows and all that.
I was a kid at school in the spring of 71, when my English teacher said, "There is a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and if you go and see it you will remember it for the rest of your life" – and that was the Peter Brooke production for the RSC. So I went, and while I can’t claim it’s changed my life, it was a very important experience and certainly contributed to my love of theatre.
I wrote this book which was published a couple of years ago about the RSC screen history and for that I spent a lot of time tracking down a completely unknown video recording of Brooke’s Dream made for Japanese television in 1973.
What is the appeal of capturing live arts on film?
I’m a bit cautious of the use of the word "capture" because it suggests the process of translating a stage work to the screen. You say "captured" and it suggests a natural or unmediated process that just happens straightforwardly, whereas in fact it’s a complex and creative process that involves adapting stage work for the screen.
Clearly there are huge advantages in terms of access to take stage work to a much larger audience geographically and socially – I think some people are put off by all the processes of going to the theatre and by theatre prices. So it can widen audiences significantly, which I think is very important.
Also I think it’s a creative process about making something which is parallel to, but distinct from, the stage version, which has its own achievements and problems as well. It’s a tradition that has a very long history – it goes back to the 1890s, when the first Shakespeare extracts were filmed.
Lots of really smart people have wrestled with how you take a stage work and find an equivalent vivid adaptation form of it on the stage.
Wow, so there’s filmed Shakespeare from the 1890s?
In 1899 – there is a tiny fragment of King John that still exists. The first film shot in Stratford was shot in 1910 – there is a version of Richard III. It’s not going to stand in comparison to a Hollywood movie or even a piece of television but of course it’s a deeply fascinating fragment of Edwardian theatre. It’s filmed front on and it looks very flamboyant, with big gestures and all that. It’s a wonderfully evocative, compelling piece of film from over 110 years ago.
Who have been your heroes or mentors?
I think in terms of the RSC, the first television version of part of an RSC production is 1955 that we still have, which is part of that year’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It becomes very significant for the company under Peter Hall in the early 1960s.
There is a BBC version of As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave from 1963, which is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting screen version of that production. Then a couple of years later, Peter Hall and John Barton worked with the BBC to do a screen version of Wars of the Roses as three full evening works for television, which they had done on the stage. I think that is absolutely one of the high points of taking an RSC production and rethinking it for the cameras.
Later, Peter Brooke’s film of King Lear with Paul Scofield, drawn from a Stratford production, is an amazing piece of film-making. In a very different way, the Thames television production of Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench – those are some of the things one looks to.
There’s been a renaissance in filmed arts during lockdown. How’s that been for you, and what have you seen that you’ve admired?
I think partly we’ve seen a lot of work released from archives and we’ve become aware of an incredibly rich history of this form. I saw an East German television production of Brecht’s Mother Courage, shot in Berlin in 1956, which is an amazing piece of historical screen theatre which I don’t think anybody knew existed until the pandemic.
We’ve seen a really rich range of more standard works that have been released to a wider audience. The RSC did that through the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine, which made available half a dozen Live From recordings.
We’ve also seen new work which has been conceived for online – people working with Zoom and other technologies to make a new kind of theatre online. Recently the Oxford company Creation Theatre released their production of The Duchess of Malfi using Zoom in a really imaginative way. Clearly all of this has brought a new focus on this kind of work and what happens when we come out of this will be completely fascinating.
Do you think screened performances pose a threat to live arts?
I don’t think there is a threat. I don’t see it as replacing the pleasure and thrill of being in the same place as live actors in the moment. That’s very particular. This is complementary in experience and artist terms. I don’t think this will replace experience and mean that people simply won't buy tickets from live theatre any longer. This is an extension of the theatre’s abilities, not the closing down of them.
For the past 20 years John Wyver has helped create screen versions of live RSC productions. Ahead of the special Shakespeare Birthday Celebration screening of The Winter's Tale, making its premiere on BBC Four this Sunday, the screen arts producer and academic told Gill Sutherland about his fascinating work.
You’re in the RST filming The Winter’s Tale – how many people are involved in that?
Even though there is no audience, the production itself is full set, costume, 20 cast, live band. They’ve been living with this for 18 months. We’ve got five cameras and a camera team in the auditorium and some of the theatre creative staff are also there. They’re running the lighting and sound desks set-up at the back of the stalls, which is what they do for dress rehearsals.
Otherwise there’s 800 empty seats in there and I think it’s very challenging for the cast to place it to these five blank camera eyes and rows of empty seats.
Covid restrictions must make it extra tricky.
They’ve rehearsed under very strict Covid protocols: we have a full time Covid marshal with rigorous risk assessments, strict one-way systems in place, signing in and out, endless hand-sanitising and everyone not on stage is wearing masks all the time.
They have worked out a way of playing it which is distanced, apart from some very specific contact moments which have been rehearsed in a way which is felt to be safe and appropriate. I think that when people see it on television, they won’t feel that they are watching a production that has been played under those conditions.
Erica Whyman and the team have done an amazing job of making something that feels very natural that has been done in a safe way but that doesn’t bear the weight or traces of that.
As the cast have never performed the production in front of an audience, does that make it more of a struggle for them?
You’d have to ask them that but I think it’s a strange experience for them. I hope that they welcome the chance to put this on the screen, but you know it’s unique for them and it’s unique for us and the fact that it’s a stage production that’s going to have its world premiere on television is an odd experience and an unusual thing that’s come about because of the pandemic.
What’s the approach to filming it: have you seen it a number of times already?
I’m producing it but I’m working with a screen director named Bridget Caldwell, who actually determines the shots in collaboration with director Erica.
The process up to this stage has been relatively similar to the way in which we have done the other Live From productions. Bridget has been watching it on Zoom in the rehearsal room and then has been to Stratford and watched several rehearsal runs. She’s also had a single-camera recording of a wide shot of the stage made, which she takes and works with the script to make a camera script.
She writes a camera script that has over 1,000 shots in it so that at every moment of the stage production, the camera script details which of the five cameras is being used, what lens it has, and whether it’s moving or not and all of that. Then we took that camera script and shared it with the camera operators and the sound crew and everybody.
The cast played the full production and we used the camera script to interpret what was going on on stage. We recorded both the mix – that is, the choice of shots – but we also recorded the full output of the cameras. We will do a bit of single-camera filming for some very particular shots, then Erica and Bridget and Mark Kendrick, the editor, will spend a week making a final version of it.
How long is the process from the technical start to the end?
In the broadest terms it’s probably three months, but in really focused terms it is a couple of weeks.
This is going out as the first RSC production to premiere on the BBC. Is there an extra pressure on that?
No, I don’t think so. Everyone is aware that it is being made for television but I don’t think we are in any way turning it into a piece of telly or compromising what a screen adaptation would be within the RSC’s terms. There’s no question that the cast and the creative team have been living with this for 18 months. There’s a lot of awareness of what we are doing and that heightens the atmosphere around it. I think that can be beneficial and can get the adrenaline going. Hopefully the feelings of the cast will come across on camera because of that.
What makes this production special?
It’s a remarkable cast. Erica and the designer Tom Piper and the team have made something that is very beautiful – the costumes, the set, the lighting are exquisite.
What makes it very special is The Winter’s Tale and we’re coming out of what feels like an 18-month winter. The play is very bleak at times but is also full of reconciliation and resurrection and forgiveness and hope. The second half is very joyful.
It’s one of my favourite plays, and the final scene is incredibly moving and full of hope and it’s a moment when the sense of touch is very important and that carries an extraordinary charge in a time when, except for a very few people, we have not been able to touch other people. So I think that will be very potent and I think Erica’s production achieves that brilliantly and I hope what we do with the camera does that justice.
When and where: The Winter’s Tale will be broadcast on BBC Four as part of BBC Lights Up, a season of plays for television and radio, produced in partnership with theatres across the UK and continuing BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine initiative. It will be available on iPlayer