According to the press notes for Lindsay Anderson’s 1975 drawing room drama In Celebration, the film was, to Anderson, the most authentic record of both his work at the Royal Court Theatre and of what he would call the Royal Court style.” Reading this little tidbit, one word stands out: record. For In Celebration, while a heartfelt study of Britain’s clash of class systems, as explored through the pinball machinations of three now professional sons bouncing against their still lower-class parents, is really nothing more than a record, a scrapbook snapshot of Anderson’s theater work. Save for a few, basically B-roll street images, this American Film Theatre production of a David Storey play, which stars the exceptional Alan Bates, James Bolam and Brian Cox as the uni-educated sons of a coal miner (played by Bill Owen with an ever-present twinkle in his eye) and his keeping-up-appearances housewife (a vivacious Constance Chapman), Anderson does not expand Storey’s talky drama, never widening his lens beyond the dreary childhood home where the sons return to celebrate their parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It is a perfect example of the wrong medium for the right project, a recording of poignant drama for posterity rather than out of artistic necessity. In Celebration most definitely chafes at being made into a film.
The idea of “American Film Theatre” is in itself oxymoronic. (Why would anyone want to see a straightforward recording of a play when they can see the play?) The last time I saw the always thrilling Brian Cox onstage was in Tom Stoppard’s exhilarating “Rock ’n’ Roll,” which made me long for the live theater version of In Celebration. For no matter how creative Anderson gets with his camera, from the CUs of Cox’s barely concealed anguished face to the slow pans across those cookie cutter working class flats, he is forever forced to follow the script like a dog being led behind on a leash. Because In Celebration is all about the words (Storey’s script brought to life through no-nonsense acting), Anderson’s camera pretty much feels superfluous, an intruder in a private family affair, much like a busybody next door neighbor.
Consequently, this only serves to highlight the most breathtaking aspect of live theater—that we in the audience aren’t forever being guided by cinematography, cued in as to who and what to watch. Our eyes are free to wander, our senses to roam around the stage at will, creating our own story through the characters whose eyes we choose to see the situation through. Filming a theater production actually limits it, confines us to what the director wants us to focus on. There is simply less freedom, and one deeply senses that restriction with In Celebration. Storey’s work loses something in translation—because the chemistry changes in live theater, depending on both the players and the audience who are always in constant subliminal communication, in every performance there is always an element of risk. The audience can never be completely sure of what it will witness, whereas film is forever stuck inside one interpretation. In other words that crucial element of surprise, what makes an otherwise overly analytical and wordy piece like In Celebration exciting, is missing. Only by remaining “live” do such plays stand as powerful forces to be reckoned with.
Anderson called In Celebration “a play of ideas” that is “rooted in its time, agonized with problems which afflict all modern societies in which children have been educated beyond their parents, in which traditional ways and faiths have been destroyed, in which generations find themselves.” This universality gets to the heart of why it would be worthy for an intrepid director like Daniel Sullivan to revive In Celebration for the stage, an antidote to viewing the stuck-in-its-dated-past film version, and in the process doing true justice to Anderson’s vividly original work. The beauty of plays is that they can be resuscitated every once in awhile, brought back to life through the vitality and chemistry of the theater (its risk!). In this instance, film is just too safe a medium, especially for a rebel like Anderson. As mistakes are left on the cutting room floor, so too is the visceral inspiration often not caught (or subsequently lost) through the lens. It’s why a movie like Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a ghostly pale imitation of his anything-can-happen, edge-of-your-seat stage work. It’s the difference between a director shooting while riding a roller coaster versus we the audience actually being on the ride. For that big white screen will always keep us one step removed from actual experience.