Saturday, November 08, 2014

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw

     Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw [D: Cedric Messina. John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray. Daniel Massey et al] Bernard Shaw’s Play produced in 1977 for TV as “Play of the Week”. A nice example of why staging plays for the camera doesn’t work. The set is obviously a set, larger than one built for a theatre, but still a set. The acting is large as for for a theatre, and doesn’t work for the camera. The sound is inconsistent, and in places distracting: the stone steps are clearly wooden. Intercutting the stage action with black and white clips of Zeppelins attacking England doesn’t help. The blocking of the characters is clearly intended for a theatre audience, and doesn’t work for the camera. The director uses overhead shots, but all they do is emphasise the staginess. The absence of a laugh track hurts the production. In a theatre, the audience reacts, which energises the actors. Reactions by other members of the audience help one follow the performance, too. But for some probably purist intention, there is no laugh track, no musical score, just the silence of the sound stage.
     Shaw’s script doesn’t help, it’s one of his wordier plays. Of course all his plays are wordy, but the best ones have a narrative arc keeps the talk focussed. Here there are the usual Shavian witticisms and pseudo-paradoxes, but too often they distract rather than create character or illuminate relationships. I gather from various socio-political remarks that Shaw intended the play to critique the property-owning classes, and to riff (once again) on how the marriage market destroys romance. Or something like that.
     This effort is of historical interest: this is how culture was once done on TV. Nine years earlier, Zeffirelli made his Romeo and Juliet, showing how to translate Shakespeare’s scripts from stage to screen. He cut and paraphrased the dialogue, and frequently used the camera instead of words, thus paying Shakespeare the compliment of professional respect. But some critics panned the movie because Zeffirelli showed that Shakespeare’s scripts could make great movies. I think Shaw’s plays can make great movies, too. This Heartbreak House is merely a photographed play, and more’s the pity. *

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