Holding the Digital Mirror up to Nature

Galatos, Auckland

23/03/2009 - 24/03/2009

Auckland Fringe 2009

Production Details

Gimmickry or art? You decide.

What happens when 21st century digital media meets Shakespearian theatre?

Actor Ross Brannigan and his audience will explore this question at his performance of Holding the Digital Mirror up to Nature at the Auckland Fringe Festival.

In the show Brannigan, who has been a professional actor for 22 years and a digital communications lecturer at AUT University for nine years, explores whether digital techniques can sit with Shakespeare’s work. Are they useful or just gimmickry?

In the piece he plays Hamlet, Macbeth, Ariel and Prospero against backdrops of digital media he has created including pre-recorded video of actors recognisable from Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune and Lord of the Rings.  

For Ariel, the storm-conjuring sprite in The Tempest, Brannigan uses motion capture technology, wearing sensors which are picked up by cameras to animate the creature on screen.

Brannigan says the audience will be the final judge on whether digital technology is a fit for Shakespeare.  However what they may not know is that the 45 minute show, which is billed as "Purgatory being trapped in static" is also part of his thesis research for a Master’s degree in Communication Studies at AUT University.

The project is supported by CoLab, a research and development centre for creative use of technology in partnership with MIC Toi Rerehiko and AUT.

Holding the Digital Mirror up to Nature,
8pm at Galatos
on Monday, March 23rd and Tuesday, March 24th.

Interesting experiment

Review by James Amos 26th Mar 2009

First, I can’t even find the blooming venue! I’ve been given clear instructions to Galatos but upon arriving at Galatos St there are no signs, only a pub called "The Law" which is written in tiny letters on the door. This turns out to be the place and after the show it’s explained to me that this sign is in fact the compulsory notice describing which personages alcohol will not be served to. I’m thinking Galatos is a little "too cool for school".

This show – Holding the Digital Mirror up to Nature – is an experiment, as I understand it, so I’ll discuss it as such rather than as a fully fledged production.

I find the concept interesting: one live actor and video footage projected onto about 5 screens set at interesting angles around the stage. The performance consists of Shakespeare scenes performed by both the live actor (Ross Brannigan) and actors on the screens.

Does the experiment work? Well, given that Shakespeare is an acquired taste to begin with – somewhat soured for many, I’m sad to say, by secondary school force feeding – adding digital media seems a bold move. I’m thinking this is either going to be fantastic or terrible. Strangely this is not the case; I find it intriguing.

The use of screens has its pros and cons. The dilemma of lighting the actor without washing out the screens is one and at times Brannigan seems to be standing in the darkest spot on stage. I’m sure this could have been worked out better with steep and/or cross-lighting.

On the pro side, I love the use of the digital media when creating atmosphere and in particular the use of sound effects that in a normal Shakespearian production would be scoffed at by two or three hundred knobbly kneed individuals in grey shorts. It’s as though my consciousness is split in two, absorbing the digital media comes naturally and added to it is the immediacy of the live performance … I like it … in theory.

The on-screen acting is good, particularly the visceral speeches of the Scottish play’s witches: my ears tingle with delight. On the other hand, Brannigan’s interacting with the screens becomes too naturalistic for my liking. At times it works well but I’d love to see some variation.

I had expected to see a showing of Shakespeare Scenes woven together thematically rather than through narrative, providing some sort of through-line or journey, this was not he case. The scenes had apparently been chosen purely on the basis that they’d make good candidates for the experiment: Macbeth and the Witches, then Hamlet and the ghost, both other-worldly in nature. Afterwards I discovered there was meant to have been some Prospero and Ariel in there too, so I could image three courses – Ambition; Revenge; Forgiveness – but that’s really speculation.

On the opening night programs were not available (not atypical of a standard fringe show) so I don’t know who directed the piece. My guess is that although the pre-recorded scenes may well have been directed [click on title above to find credits-ed], Brannigan was not. He is somewhat similar from scene to scene and it’s really only the language itself that makes his characters clear.

A vlog (Video webLog) sequence brings the live actor into simultaneous close up on the big screen, which lets us get right into his head. I am starting to see the potential for this kind of theatre. Imagine the grandness of a massive landscape scene – the epic storytelling of the cinema – combined with the ability to probe character and the nature of humanity so deeply; the transfixing power of theatre. I can see it now: "Lord of the Rings – the stage production"! 

I look forward to seeing what Brannigan comes up with next and am hopeful that he got enough out of this experiment to warrant further exploration.


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