Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Theatre in Ultra-High Definition

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Written by littlegoode

Back in 2009, the National Theatre started something beautiful, by broadcasting live theatre performances into cinemas around the world. NT Live, as it’s now known, gave people the opportunity to see award-winning shows for a fraction of the price. Now, The National has partnered with Sony and Vue cinemas to launch their latest project – the screening of theatre performances in ultra-high definition, or Sony Digital Cinema 4K.

The Rise of Event Cinema

This performance of Behind the Beautiful Forevers was filmed live on the Olivier stage at the National using six Sony F55 4K cameras.

“In many ways the F55 offers us the best of both worlds,” says rental company Presteigne’s Head of Technology, David O’Carroll. “Its large-format sensor gives us that movie look, but with operation that’s just like an ordinary live TV camera.”

This is a partnership that marks a huge turning point in event cinema, which has grown on average 50% every year. Live screenings of sporting events and theatre shows are increasingly popular, and the fastest growing side of every cinematic and production business. Being able to see it in crystal clear definition will surely help to boost the (already very reasonable) ticket sales.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

As wonderful as the picture quality is, there is no show without something to watch. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the latest play by two-time Academy Award nominee David Hare. It is based on the National Book Award for Non-Fiction 2012 winner of the same name, by journalist Katherine Boo. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, where the play is set, an Indian slum near Mumbai airport. The true events that she witnessed and the people she met there are recorded in her book, and have now been brought to life on-stage.

The play’s title and its description are somewhat misleading. This was not the whimsical, imagined or fanciful story that I had been expecting. Although, on every level, I am glad that it wasn’t. The play opens in Annawadi, an Indian slum hidden from the up-and-coming city of Mumbai by tall walls. The people there are poor but smart, sharp and aware. Most make their living by collecting and organising rubbish – the pickers and the sorters. They make their living selling plastics and, wherever possible, much sought after metal.

One of the first, and most striking lines, is the truth that people don’t expect the poor to have feelings. That we believe anyone who dwells in a slum is only able to understand anger, pain or hunger. In reality, they probably feel much more than we do in the Western world. As writer and director, David Hare and Rufus Norris have succeeded in taking Boo’s account and turning it into a living, breathing community on stage. There are many different stories, the set is cluttered and the play is full of raucous singing and swearing, but it works. This is a vibrant, fast-paced, exciting and dangerous place to exist, and that comes across instantly.

The plot focuses on the Husains, a family of eleven who are considered to be ‘doing well’ in Annawadi. The ambitious and proud Zehrunisa (played by EastEnders’ Meera Syal) flaunts the family’s wealth in front of the other slum dwellers, while her son Abdul, the best rubbish sorter in the area, tries to keep a low profile.

Neighbour Asha is proud of her connections to the police, a dodgy ‘job’ that is keeping her daughter Manju in education. Manju’s friend Meena is the opposite – beaten by her parents and forced into an arranged marriage, she and Manju frequently discuss the merits of education throughout the play. Picker Sunil aspires to be like Kalu the thief, searching out new ways to make money by breaking into the airport yards and stealing metal. Times are difficult, but the residents of Annawadi remain light-hearted, until the cripple Fatima decides to accuse the Husain family of a hideous, self-inflicted crime.

The plot is so smooth and everyone’s stories so cleverly interwoven, that the play is almost cinematic in the way it runs. The relationships between the characters are powerful and intriguing, but the political and social messages are clear. How beneficial is education if it pushes a young girl with no hope to suicide? What is the true value of money if all of it is spent on bribes? What is justice?

There are some dark and horrifying moments in the play, yet the overall production leaves you with a positive and hopeful feeling. Is it making too much light of the issues in slums like Annawadi? Or perhaps it’s proving that poverty makes people much stronger than wealth, despite the corruption? I am still undecided.

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The visuals

There is no doubt that Sony’s ultra-high definition is going to be a storming success and a huge benefit for NT Live, as well as for those attending these viewings. The picture quality is astounding, the live feed is of the best quality and it is difficult to believe that there is absolutely no post-production involved when these shows are screened. Event cinema is never going to be able to replace the feeling of sitting in a theatre or arena, but that probably suits many people more than attending a live event. Close-ups and split shots are often criticised as taking away the ‘theatre feeling,’ but they certainly have the benefit of always giving you the best seat in the house.

In Norris’s production, the camera is used to its best ability, giving audiences a clear visual of every inch of the round stage. The set is expansive, symbolic and manipulated efficiently but cleverly, giving impressions of height and movement and economic progression. Billboards and posters are cleverly used to show the way Mumbai’s rapid expansion threatens the residents of Annawadi. The cast themselves are expansive, bright, loud, expressive, and give their whole selves to this high-energy production.

It is becoming more and more rare to watch a theatre production and be truly absorbed into every moment of each individual’s story, to gasp and cry and laugh in all the right places and still leave feeling like your evening was well-spent; and maybe even that you learnt something worthwhile. Norris has managed, with a spectacular cast, to show that there are worlds beyond our own, functioning societies where functioning seems an impossibility, and death and love and danger in places where we only ever see poverty. It is a truly spectacular yet believable story, presented in a funny, moving and visually beautiful production.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers will be screened in Sony Digital Cinema 4K across all Vue’s 83 UK sites on April 2nd.