This week, two of our fabulous writers head to Youtube to watch a Zoom production of John Lyly’s Gallathea, directed by Rachel Chung. The show was performed live on Zoom in April 2021 to audiences from around the globe as part of The Show Must Go Online – a web series created by Robert Myles in response to the global pandemic, and the extensive cancellation of jobs and contracts faced by theatrical freelancers. After all, Shakespeare wrote some of his best plays and poems when theatres were shut due to the Plague, right?
I had a great time watching Gallathea. Rachel Chung knew what they were doing with this script and managed to create a fun and lively play that got the most out of the resources available. When I learned that all the cast and crew were volunteers I was really impressed at what had been achieved.
Shakira Searle and Eugenia Low were excellent leads and made the scenes with Gallathea and Phillida feel tender and joyful. However my favourite scenes were those with the nymphs; they were highly energetic and made the most creative use of Zoom as a format, while forming a sweet complement to the main plotline. While Gallathea and Phillida steadily fell in love, I found myself engrossed by the nymphs’ confused conversations of what it even means to love someone. These scenes really tied the play together and are what make me want to come back to it in my own time.
And on top of telling a great story: the soundtrack slaps. So much so that after the play finished I went back and rewatched the nymphs’ Bratmobile-esque anthem. I’d recommend this on the music alone.
Aside from the play itself, I appreciated the presence of a BSL interpreter and captioning (even if imperfect), not only was it a big boon to accessibility, having the text to hand made it much easier to follow the Elizabethan language. Accessibility isn’t always a guarantee even for professional online productions and TSMGO deserve praise for going the extra mile.
And then on top of that we got both a cast and crew Q&A, and conversations with critics studying the play. This was definitely geared more towards theatre and literature geeks than casual audiences, but as a colossal nerd I loved having the extra insight that would have been difficult to bring to a live theatre. I think the additional effort in terms of insight and accessibility more than compensated for areas limited in production value.
Because of course Gallathea isn’t perfect. As much as it captures the best of Zoom theatre, it also brings out the worst. The performances are inconsistent, and while there were some weak links in the cast, I think the bigger issue was a lack of in-person rehearsals rather than the actors themselves; not being able to address issues in a rehearsal room left things feeling unpolished. Then there’s the fact that actors only have a small frame to work with; Rachel Chung threw in some creative solutions, but there’s only so many ways to make standing still and talking to a camera interesting, which isn’t great when lockdown has already destroyed your attention span. Both of these issues really stood out in the comic relief scenes, which were already marred by the issue that, like most early modern comedy, they weren’t funny to begin with.
Zoom even hurt my beloved soundtrack. Low-fidelity equipment and compression made for garbled audio and pixelated choreography. As little as an actor raising their voice would mangle the sound. Obviously, this isn’t anyone’s fault, but it still hurt the play.
But I’ll forgive Gallathea all its flaws simply because of how obvious it is that all the cast and crew loved performing it. In the Q&A everyone had a clear sense of ownership of the piece, and that passion is where it has real value. It’s creative and unique and loving and completely unmitigated in its expression of queer joy. If you’re happy to sit through a middling Shakespeare production then Gallathea is definitely worth your time.
18 months deep into The Pandemic, we seem to be slowly getting used to this whole online malarkey. In terms of theatre going digital, we’ve seen the full spectrum: from the good, to the bad, to the downright bizarre. I am happy to report that this production sat – for the most part – in the first (and also somewhat in the last) of these three camps.
In some ways in fact, Zoom lent itself extremely well to this particular play; an Elizabethan drama featuring characters from the Greek myths. I’ll level with you, what with all the long names and complicated narratives, when watching classical theatre I often find myself getting a bit confused – I’m the one frantically googling Sparknotes on my phone in the interval. So the addition of the Zoom names clearly labelling each character was actually a huge plus for me, as was the (albeit slightly shaky) live captioning.
Aside from helping out easily confused audience members like me, the use of Zoom definitely added to the surrealness of the production. There was something so strange about the way these characters – including nymphs, fairies and various Greek gods – entered and exited the video chat in the same nondescript way you might see your colleagues enter a Microsoft Teams call at work. In the play’s dramatic ‘denouement’, Neptune’s cry of ‘but soft, what be these?!’ felt like it deserved more of a big reveal than a few more boxes of characters’ heads and shoulders silently appearing on our screens (also, side note: I’m curious to see how these online entrances are noted on the script – “Enter the Zoom chat, stage left”?)
Really, the main aspect it felt like this production was lacking – without stating the glaringly obvious – was the characters’ bodies. Well, from below the waist, anyway. Half of acting is reacting, yes. But I’m not sure whoever said that was imagining an actor sitting still, doing variations of Shocked/Joyful/Ponderous faces to a stationary camera for the entirety of their non-speaking time.
Indeed, Elizabethan drama is many things, but brief ain’t one of them. Many characters had some pretty hefty silloques, which often left the other characters on ‘stage’ stranded in the Shocked/Joyful/Ponderous facial expression cycle for probably longer than was comfortable for anyone involved. While the (superbly acted) characters of Diana and Venus battle it out in one scene, a regal but rather redundant looking Neptune is left to merely stare at the camera looking slightly concerned, like an uncle at a family Zoom quiz who’s unsure how to connect to audio but is too embarrassed to ask for help.
Having said this, the production certainly put its all into making up what it loses in proxemics (hello drama GCSE) in other ways. The effort in the costumes, while endearingly low budget (I particularly like Neptune’s cardboard trident and Cupid’s love heart bodypaint), cannot be faulted. And my university days are not so far behind me to have forgotten that throwing some fairy lights at something never fails to add a certain ‘ambience’.
Another dynamic shift caused by the move online is that between the audience and the cast. Again, I have mixed feelings about it, but most are positive (I think). The live chat function remained active throughout the performance (despite me not actually watching live) and because I have the attention span of a particularly excitable goldfish, I found it nearly impossible not to read along while watching. There were some insightful comments, yes, but the majority was mostly just variations of ‘yasss *insert character name*’ and the hand clapping emoji. I understand wanting to recreate the collective experience of being amongst others in a physical theatre. But for me, this doesn’t quite cut it, and instead just acts as a bit of a distraction.
On the other hand, this sense of heightened interaction came into its all in the q&a which followed the play. It was really amazing to see how global the live audience (and the cast and crew, come to think of it) had been on the night, with people tuning in from all across the world. And it was really fascinating to hear Rachael Chung speak, discussing their riot grrrl inspiration behind the play’s (banging) soundtrack, and asexual punk reading of the nymphs.
Overall, on a rainy day in Brighton watching this bizarre, endearing and overall impressively energetic performance certainly felt like a great use of my time. Hand clapping emoji, indeed.
You can still catch Gallathea on Youtube, along with many other digital productions, as part of The Show Must Go Online series.