SCREEN ADAPTATION IN TURBULENT TIMES: A CONVERSATION WITH MEDIA HISTORIAN AND PRODUCER JOHN WYVER

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

The production of Richard III by The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) will be broadcast across cinemas in the UK from the end of September. This tale of the unscrupulous rise to power of a tyrant is directed by Gregory Doran and produced for the screen by John Wyver, Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster. 

Ahead of the cinematic release of the production, Wyver shares with CREAM PhD researcher Lucy Rogers his own journey into the world of producing, his involvement with the RSC’s innovative screen adaptation series, and his extensive experience of combining academic research with the work of a producer. In this conversation, he reflects on how the relationship between theatre and television continues to evolve in response to new technologies, diversity considerations, and in order to welcome new audiences.

How do you combine your role as Professor of the Arts on Screen with being a producer for broadcast television and event cinema?

Ever since I was Television Editor at Time Out at the end of the 1970s, I have been interested in bringing together the media industry and academia and working at the border between them. This used to involve commissioning prominent figures in film and media studies to write for a magazine with a broad general audience. I also tried, often very badly, to draw on the emergent film theory of the time in weekly journalism. Then when Channel 4 started in 1982 it was possible, for maybe a decade, to work as an independent producer and explore how to bring critical analysis to innovating with the form and content of programmes. The series State of the Art which I produced with Sandy Nairne and Geoff Dunlop in 1987 is an example of that, looking at ideas and images of the 1980s with an awareness at least of theories of post-modernism.

That kind of radical work became increasingly hard to develop within television, and I would say almost impossible after both the BBC and Channel 4 changed in fundamental ways around the turn of the millennium. Challenges including cable and satellite channels, games and the Internet disrupted the previously comparatively stable duopoly of public service broadcasting, and the broadcasters increasingly concentrated on programmes that would, they hoped, achieve high audience numbers. There was less and less space for the kind of television that interested me, although with my independent production company Illuminations I have continued to produce documentaries, including recently Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today (BBC, 2020) and Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain (BBC, 2021).

How did you transition into producing screen adaptations? 

From the late 1990s I was increasingly engaged in producing screen adaptations of stage work, both theatre and dance, and at the same time thinking and writing about that process. In different ways those parallel processes have occupied a lot of my time over the past two decades. I’ve worked as a screen producer with the National Theatre, the Almeida and the Donmar, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, and Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Shechter, and I’ve been particularly fortunate to collaborate extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC wanted to broaden the audience for their work, and to try to overcome some of the obstacles, whether geographical or financial or simply to do with the associations of ‘theatre’ and ‘Shakespeare’, that have kept away people who might otherwise have wished to come. And in that sense the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series, like the comparable NT Live productions from the National Theatre, have been a huge success.

I produced three television film versions of RSC productions directed by Gregory Doran: Macbeth (2000) with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter; Hamlet (2009) with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart; and Julius Caesar (2012) with Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Adjoa Andoh. Then when Gregory became Artistic Director of the company he asked me to produce a series of ‘event cinema’ screen productions, RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, starting with Richard II in 2012.

Much Ado About Nothing, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

Earlier this year you produced the RSC’s production of Much Ado About Nothing for the screen. What kind of impact did that have?

Much Ado About Nothing was the 30th production made for the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon series. Most of these have been broadcast live to cinemas, but COVID disrupted our plans, as it did so much else. Instead, both The Winter’s Tale in 2019 and Much Ado… were recorded for transmission on BBC Four.

Much Ado… was the first RSC Shakespeare production on the company’s main stage directed by a Black theatre-maker, the brilliant Roy Alexander Weise. With set designer Jemima Robinson and costume designs by Melissa Simon-Hartman, who has designed for Beyoncé and Notting Hill Carnival. Roy conjured up a kind of Afro-futurist world that looked amazing on stage – and which I think we were able to translate to the screen to good effect. He also commissioned an original score by Nigerian-born British guitarist Femi Temowo. And as Roy said, “By setting this production in an imagined future reality, we have the opportunity to see our own world through new eyes. What has the potential to be different? What capacity do we have for change? What attitudes remain the same? And are we ok with that?”

Like almost all of the other RSC Live From… screen versions, Much Ado… was mostly shot with five cameras in front of an audience in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But for this production, working closely with the screen director Indra Bhose, we experimented by shooting certain sequences with a single camera, and separate from a performance, using the more familiar screen language of drama. This allowed us to get closer to the actors in certain scenes, to suggest a stronger sense of intimacy with them, rather than observing them from a certain distance, as can be the case with some multi-camera recordings. In screen versions that we’ve recorded since then we have taken this experimentation further in ways that I think are very interesting.

Much Ado… has had more than 150,000 views on BBC Four and BBCiPlayer, where it remains until the start of April 2023. That’s perhaps not a huge audience when you compare it with, say, the millions who watch an episode of The Great British Bake-off, but it’s very significant for a contemporary production of Shakespeare. Plus, that recording will have an online life for years and we expect it to be widely used in education.

Much Ado About Nothing, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

What you are working on now?

Since Much Ado… across the summer we’ve recorded three further RSC productions, including the second and third parts of Henry VI, which are titled Rebellion and Wars of the Roses. And Richard III premieres in cinemas across the UK on September 28. In the screen versions of the first two we responded to the strongly cinematic staging of director Owen Horsley, integrating film elements and trying out split screen sequences. Richard III is perhaps more classical, more traditional in the way in which we have created the screen version, but it’s a great staging by Gregory Doran with a stellar performance by Arthur Hughes as the king. Arthur was born with a rare condition known as radial dysplasia. His right wrist is disfigured and he identifies as ‘limb different’. Watching a disabled actor play this role, and hearing all of the jibes and insults that the other characters direct towards him, makes you see the play in a completely different way – and I think the screen adaptation will bring that out very powerfully.

Quite separately from that, I’m also working on a book about early television in Britain. The history of television in the years between 1925 and 1939 has mostly been written either in terms of the technology or as institutional history, whereas I’m really interested in the programmes of those years – although of course we have almost no moving image records. But there is a huge amount of other archival traces, including production memos, photographs, reviews and so forth, and I’m trying to reconstruct what some of the earliest programmes were like – including of course many adaptations of stage productions of the time.

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

It’s been tough times for theatre. How have you seen live performance adapt to the challenges of recent years?

Lockdown focussed attention on screen versions of stage productions. Initially, companies like NT and the RSC made available recordings of earlier shows, but quite soon companies like Creation Theatre began to develop shows for digital platforms, making original work for YouTube and Zoom. There was a remarkable explosion of creativity, and I think we’ll see ideas from there begin to impact more traditional theatre forms over the coming years, as well as digital-only theatre develop unique approaches to performance.

Audiences are returning to theatres, although more slowly than perhaps companies need to balance their books. Many musicals and comedies are doing great business, perhaps unsurprisingly, but in many contexts drama is finding it hard to tempt audiences back. As to whether this is a long-term, structural change, it’s probably too early to say, but combined with the debts from lockdown and with the largely unsympathetic attitude towards the arts of the current government, these are unquestionably difficult times for those running companies looking to create challenging work.

Richard III, 2022: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

What does the future hold, both for you and for the forms of stage to screen adaptation? 

Throughout all of this production work, I’ve been interested in documenting the processes, reflecting on questions raised by stage to screen adaptation, and relating our work to the rich history of such forms, which stretches back to early cinema. I’ve written one monograph about this tradition, Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History (Bloomsbury, 2019), and co-edited with Amanda Wrigley a collection of essays, Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television (Manchester University Press, 2022), and I intend to continue chronicling and analysing stage to screen adaptations.

In some ways, I’m a touch pessimistic about the possibilities for further productions. With All’s Well That Ends Well we will have made a screen version of 34 of the 36 Shakespeare plays that were included in the 1623 First Folio. But the market is such that I’m not sure that with the RSC we’ll be able to complete the “missing” two, which are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry VIII, or All is True.

At the same time, there is much more experimentation taking place with screen versions of stage productions. I was excited to see what the Almeida did with the online live presentation of their staging of Macbeth last year. And by the time this interview appears we will be in post-production with All’s Well That Ends Well for release in 2023. 

With this, we are less concerned with offering apparently seamless or unmediated access to the stage production, which has always been the ideal of ‘classical’ adaptations. Instead, we are exploring a range of filmic styles, such as split-screens and on-screen text, to extend and complement the Stratford staging. Stage director Blanche Macintyre has made a strongly contemporary production that integrates social media, and we are aiming to take the ideas of that onto the screen in highly distinctive ways. So, while budgets will undoubtedly be tighter for future adaptations, I am excited that all kinds of innovations will emerge. I’m confident that the history of stage-to-screen work, which as I say is already more than a century old, will continue to develop in fascinating ways across the next hundred years. 

All’s Well That Ends Well, 2022: Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC

Richard III premieres in cinemas across the UK on 28th September 2022.