Michael Sheen and David Tennant in BBC One's Staged. twitter.com/davidtennantcom

When I first saw clips from Staged on Facebook before sitting down to watch it, I thought it was some kind of wacky improvised comedy featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen riffing over Zoom. I loved Good Omens, I thought, I’m glad they’re friends now. But while Staged does feature this improvisational comedic style, I was surprised that its narrative followed the two actors’ Zoom rehearsals, not as themselves but rather a heightened version of themselves. This has made Staged stick with me – while it would have been fun just to show the two actors being goofy with each other, it goes further in presenting ideas about what it means to communicate in our current pandemic climate, discussing ideas about performance and interiority.

Meta-theatricality is a crucial undercurrent of the miniseries; from its title, literally reminding us of the fictional nature of the show, to its narrative centred around the interactions between actors in rehearsal. With the pandemic, a unique vulnerability has started arising whenever we call people. Now, we’re able to see people on video calls in their homes. We’ve all snooped through someone’s bookshelf in the background or wondered if they’re wearing sweatpants below the camera. We’re able to see David Tennant in a hoodie or the inside of Michael Sheen’s house. There is more relatability as their personal lives are shared with us. This quality of being an insider is appealing; we feel in the know, as if an actor has corpsed or is winking at the audience.

“In doing so, Staged considers what it means to know someone, and what it means to put on a performance. ”

In doing so, Staged considers what it means to know someone, and what it means to put on a performance. On a meta level, the actors are supposedly showing more of their private lives, but remain caricatures of what an actor might be. We get the insight of them rehearsing for a play, something rarely seen from actors. But, especially in series two, we wonder – is this authentic? Are ostensibly vulnerable moments still a performance? As Sheen and Tennant watch other actors trying to portray scenes from series one, it shines a light on considering what constitutes our true actions and what constitutes performance.

This develops further when examining the show’s chosen medium, Zoom calls. People often joke about their face falling the second that they hit ‘END’ on a Zoom call, but even in this joke, there is much to consider about how this makes us think about performance in conversation and how it is affected by the digital sphere. Whether this performance is pretending you didn’t just roll out of bed for a supervision, or that you can follow what someone else in a seminar is saying despite their audio breaking up, it is a new kind of social language to which we’ve had to adapt. This also changes our ability to manipulate how we are being shown, with our ability to manipulate how we present ourselves limited only to this small box, where we are constantly reminded of our own image. With this small window of ourselves on the screen, we constantly are reminded that we are being perceived. It is the mortifying ordeal of being known.

Sheen and Tennant in action during an episode.twitter.com/sheen365

But what if all of our conversations turn into this? What about having to perform when speaking to friends or loved ones? There is something uniquely exhausting about video calling, which can cause feelings of guilt so that even talking to someone you care about can be difficult. This difficulty in being able to simply enjoy each other’s presence has caused video calls to become a quietly tiring form of communication, where you might find yourself unconsciously performing, even to someone with whom you have no pretences. When so much of our selfhood develops through our social interactions, after being isolated for so long, it’s hard to navigate these waters again. This is reflected incredibly in Michael Sheen’s outburst to Josh Gad in season two about taking on emotional burdens. After watching hours of different actors trying to portray his prior conversations with himself and Tennant, he bemoans the difficulties of being unable to connect physically with loved ones, rather than over another video call.

“Staged feels unique as an encapsulation of a collective mood, as we all experience fatigue in our third national lockdown.”

This is met with applause from Gad, thinking that this was simply a performance, which diffuses the emotionality of this monologue, in which Sheen captures a common feeling in this pandemic – the difficulty in trying to navigate conversations when it seems that everyone is collectively going through it, with trouble in reaching out for help as we usually would.


Mountain View

2aaecf King John: “Life (in lockdown) is as tedious as a twice-told tale.”

Staged feels unique as an encapsulation of a collective mood, as we all experience fatigue in our third national lockdown. Moving beyond the wacky antics of series one, we are now more isolated from our social lives than ever before, still trying to navigate how we are going to return. Staged acknowledges its meta-theatricality and use of Zoom, not only in a nudge-nudge to the audience about the awkwardness of video calling, but by representing ideas about identity and collective fatigue. This leads to a surprisingly poignant ending as Sheen and Tennant are reunited in person, but still separated by social distancing and masks, with an awkward edge to their conversation as they try to reconfigure how to interact. Especially in its second series, Staged is successful as a presentation of the toll of adapting to these ‘unprecedented times’, and our anxieties surrounding what is waiting for us on the other side of the screen.