We asked theatres and producers across the UK to come up with ideas for a virtual theatre festival to be staged in lockdown. The result is BBC Lights Up: 18 new productions for television, radio and online. They bring together household names with groundbreaking new talent. They are joyful, moving, funny, poetic and, in many cases, probing and provocative plays. Each theatre and producer responded to the challenge in their own way, pushing the boundaries of what theatre can be when there is no audience in the room.— Jonty Claypole, Director, BBC Art
For the first time in its history, a Royal Shakespeare Company production – The Winter’s Tale, directed by Erica Whyman – gets its world premiere on BBC television.
- The film adaptation of The Winter’s Tale will be screened on BBC Four in April, coinciding with the month of Shakespeare’s birthday.
- New TV plays include Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert, winner of the James Tait Black Drama Prize, produced by Sonia Friedman Productions and filmed at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it plays as part of SFP’s RE:EMERGE season; and Orpheus in the Record Shop, a collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, adapted for the screen.
- New radio plays include The Meaning Of Zong, the debut play written by Olivier Award-winning actor, star of the original UK cast of Hamilton, Giles Terera; Stripe By Stripe And Other Stories from National Theatre Wales; Braids from Live Theatre, Newcastle; Dedication from Nuffield Theatre, Southampton; Welcome To Iran from Theatre Royal Stratford East; Folk from Hampstead Theatre starring Simon Russell Beale.
- Cast announced for Nick Payne plays on Radio 3: Constellations will star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Black Mirror) and George Mackay (1917); Elegy will star Juliet Stevenson (Out Of Her Mind, Bend It Like Beckham), Deborah Findlay (The Lady In The Van) and Marilyn Nnadebe (I May Destroy You).
- Continuing Culture In Quarantine, BBC Arts comes together with theatres across the UK in an unprecedented celebration of British theatre, bringing 18 newly-recorded staged productions to audiences across television, radio, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds, as we approach the anniversary of theatre closures due to lockdown.
- Together with the Unprecedented drama series released last year, as well as filmed live theatre acquisitions from the RSC, Northern Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and many more, Lights Up marks out BBC Four as the biggest supporter of theatre during lockdown of any British broadcaster.
BBC Arts today announces more plays adapted for the screen and radio as part of Lights Up, a festival of UK theatre that brings together productions that were either closed, or never even opened to the public, due to Covid-19. Continuing its Culture In Quarantine initiative – bringing arts and culture into the nation’s homes – BBC Arts has partnered with theatres across the country to produce this unprecedented season of plays for audiences at home.
Tuesday 16 March marks the anniversary of theatres having to close exactly a year ago, with many productions that were years in the making never reaching the stage. These include the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale. The play was scheduled to run in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Summer 2020 then on tour, but was postponed due to the pandemic. Now, The Winter’s Tale – as well as J’Ouvert from Sonia Friedman Productions and Orpheus In The Record Shop from Opera North and Leeds Playhouse – will be adapted for television as part of BBC Lights Up.
And Other Stories on Radio 4, produced in collaboration with National Theatre Wales (Saturday 13 March). Next weekend, Olivier Award-winning actor Giles Terera stars alongside Samuel West in his own debut play The Meaning Of Zong, about the notorious massacre aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781, on Radio 3 (Sunday 21 March). Lights Up continues throughout March and April, a festival celebrating the breadth of UK theatre.
Jonty Claypole, Director of BBC Arts, says: “A few months ago, we asked theatres and producers across the UK to come up with ideas for a virtual theatre festival to be staged in lockdown. The result is BBC Lights Up: 18 new productions for television, radio and online. They bring together household names with groundbreaking new talent. They are joyful, moving, funny, poetic and, in many cases, probing and provocative plays. Most of all, they are astonishingly innovative. Each theatre and producer responded to the challenge in their own way, pushing the boundaries of what theatre can be when there is no audience in the room.
“Audiences will, hopefully, be able to return to theatres again in a few months, but in the meantime BBC Lights Up celebrates the creativity and resilience of UK theatre in a time of adversity.”
Erica Whyman, RSC Deputy Artistic Director and director of The Winter’s Tale, says: “This company of actors and creatives started work on this production in January 2020 and stopped 12 months ago just days from getting it on to the stage. All the way through the pandemic we have believed that we will one day complete the work, but only recently did we understand how different it would be from what we had rehearsed last year. We have worked with strict safety measures, including bubbles and social distancing, and we have developed some ingenious ways of interacting with the cameras whilst, we hope, preserving our relationship with the glorious Royal Shakespeare Theatre – but the greatest change is in ourselves.
“This is a play about power, about family, about truth and trust and it is a play in which touch is incredibly important – so we are acutely aware of its increased resonance in our lives now. I am delighted that The Winter’s Tale is part of the BBC’s inspirational Lights Up season, giving new life to productions from all over the UK that so sadly had to be cancelled or postponed. It is a privilege to have the chance to make this production for BBC audiences and to be reminded of Shakespeare’s compassion for lives changed forever.”
The newly-commissioned plays
- BBC Four and BBC iPlayer: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Winter’s Tale, which never opened on stage due to Covid-19, is adapted for the screen. Set across a 16-year span from the 1953 coronation to the moon landings, this new production imagines a world where the ghosts of fascist Europe collide with horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale, before washing up on a joyful seashore. King Leontes rips his family apart with his jealousy but grief opens his heart. Will he find the child he abandoned before it is too late? A moving new production directed by RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman.
- BBC Four and BBC iPlayer: A new production of J’Ouvert, the debut play of Yasmin Joseph and directorial debut of actor Rebekah Murrell (Nine Night, National Theatre, Trafalgar Studios), was first produced at Theatre503 in a co-production with Bad Breed and Tobi Kyeremateng. Winner of the James Tait Black Drama Prize, produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, J’Ouvert was filmed on stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End where it forms part of SFP’s RE:EMERGE season, a collection of new plays with artistic direction from Ian Rickson, supported by Arts Council England.
- BBC Four and iPlayer: Acclaimed rapper and playwright Testament (Black Men Walking, The Beatboxer) takes inspiration from the classical Greek myth of Orpheus, in Orpheus In The Record Shop, a show that fuses spoken word and beatboxing with classical music played live by seven members of the Orchestra of Opera North.
- BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds: Olivier Award-winning actor Giles Terera stars alongside Samuel West in The Meaning Of Zong, his debut play about the notorious massacre aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781, and how uncovering its story galvanised the growing Abolition movement in the UK. This collaboration between Bristol Old Vic and Jonx Productions brings to BBC Radio 3 an audio production of this inspirational new stage play, developed by Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, directed by Tom Morris and produced by Jonquil Panting.
- BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds: Simon Russell Beale stars as musician and famous collector of English folk songs, Cecil Sharp, in Folk, a new play by Nell Leyshon originally commissioned by Hampstead Theatre and postponed due to the pandemic, on BBC Radio 3.
- BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds: In Stripe By Stripe And Other Stories, Rakie Ayola reads a selection of Leonora Brito’s perceptive and spirited short stories about life, love and family from the point of view of Black and mixed-race women from Cardiff Docks and beyond. These stories were originally performed live online in three parts, over three nights in February 2021, as a National Theatre Wales production called Dat’s Love And Other Stories.
- BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds: Braids, in collaboration with Live Theatre, Newcastle, is a new play about fitting in and standing out. Abeni is new to college and Durham. She’s putting purple braids in local girl Jasmine’s hair and giving her ‘the talk’, opening Jasmine’s mind to new ways of seeing the world – and the world seeing both of them. Written by Olivia Hannah, Directed by Chinonyerem Odimba.
- BBC Radio 4 and Sounds: After 60 years of production The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton closed its doors due to Covid-19. We mark the venue’s great contribution to regional theatre with a production of Nick Dear’s Dedication, which he wrote for the Theatre in 2016 – a year dedicated to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
- BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds: In Welcome To Iran, playwright and Artistic director of Theatre Royal Stratford East Nadia Fall weaves an imagined narrative together with real-life stories to construct a tender and witty snapshot of culture and life in modern Iran. A Reduced Listening production from Lockdown Theatre for BBC Radio 3.
These newly-announced plays join the line-up of theatre for Lights Up announced earlier in the year. These include the TV adaptations of Sitting, the debut play of Bafta Award-winning actor Katharine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Home I’m Darling) in which she also stars; Sadie the searing new play from former Lyric Belfast artist in residence David Ireland; four one-woman plays: Pale Sister written by celebrated author Colm Tóibín for Lisa Dwan (Bloodlands) directed by Sir Trevor Nunn; Half Breed created and performed by Natasha Marshall; Buttercup written and performed by Liverpool-Congolese multidisciplinary artist Dorcas Sebuyange; and Harm, a new play from British playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell about the corrosive effect of social media and isolation; The National Theatre of Scotland’s multi award-winning stage play Adam, inspired by the life of Adam Kashmiry who plays the role of Adam, in the story of a young transgender man and his journey to reconciliation.
Lights Up radio plays previously announced are New Perspectives Theatre Company’s award-winning production of The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan; a double-bill of Nick Payne’s award-winning stage plays Constellations and Elegy.
Pictured: cast members Andrew French, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Joseph Kloska, from The Winter’s Tale