The National Theatre is currently in the midst of a scheme where it screens live broadcasts of its shows to cinemas across the globe. (I realise at this point that I have mentioned the National Theatre in every article I have written to date. Not sponsored, just a big fan. Although if we’re talking sponsorship, Reece’s Pieces are excellent.) This scheme has been going on for several years now, starting back in 2009 with the NT’s production of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren. Since then, it has broadcast over 20 productions to 500 cinemas worldwide, to over 1.5 million people.
This, therefore, is a pretty big deal. Sold-out productions such as the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolianus with Tom Hiddleston- the fastest selling run in the history of the West End- or Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, can now be shown to umpteen more people (Frankenstein returns for its fourth encore screening this Halloween) than one small theatre in London with a limited run could ever hope. As a student living in the wild north of the country, I have been able to see shows that would never have been possible had I had to factor in an eight-hour drive to London and a ticket price of sometimes three figures. At around £10 a cinema ticket, going to see these big-name shows suddenly becomes much more of an affordable reality.
The problem lies, for many people, about where to draw the line. Screening a production live to people around the globe is one thing, but there are questions to be asked about the point at which the screening of a theatrical production stops being theatre, and becomes instead just another cinema listing. Is the future of theatre going to be shows performed purely for a camera? Frankenstein was the first NTLive production I saw, and I saw it a year after it was filmed. Personally, whilst I enjoyed the experience (and the show was undoubtedly fantastic), a little of the magic was taken away by the fact that the audience I could hear was a year out of date. It’s one thing sitting in a crowded cinema, knowing that 403 miles away, this show is happening right now, and quite another to know that this show is closed, the set has been taken down, and all I am seeing is a recorded performance consigned to the theatrical history books.
Theatre is a visceral thing: it demands a give and a take, and in terms of the actors onstage, whilst there may be ten thousand extra people watching their show, the actors get none of the feedback that a live audience brings. Their show may be trending on Twitter, but to the actors, it was just another performance to a full house, albeit one with a TV camera at the back of the auditorium.
This problem goes further. There have been calls, for example, for these recorded performances to be sold on DVD. However, NTLive have proved themselves unwilling to do so, and I can see their point. Of course, on a certain level, there is nothing I want more than to see an excellent show in the comfort of my own home, in my jammies, as many times as I want, whenever I want. But unlike the various RSC productions which were adapted and filmed especially for television, the National Theatre screenings pretty much need to be seen with an audience in tow. We have been trained, as viewers, to expect perfection from our television broadcasts, and putting a camera at the back of an auditorium is never going to achieve that.
We have all, I am sure, struggled through our school shows DVDs, wincing at every bum line and fuzzy audio, wondering why it doesn’t look as great as it felt the time. Live productions are not made to be watched again and again: they are only there for that one moment. That’s one of the joys of theatre: that it’s different every evening. Pinning it down, much like a butterfly on a collector’s card, takes away much of what it is meant to be. That cough from the man behind us in the theatre is a very different thing to that one cough that mars your favourite line of your favourite film.
So what’s to be done? Well, that depends. If you want to watch a theatrical production, go and see it live. Go and make use of the fact that this new era of modern technology means you can watch these shows live, at a much-reduced price, in your home town. However, if what you want is an evening in at home, then go and rent the movie adaptation off Amazon. (Or not. They’re kinda evil.) Shows, to me, belong on the stage, to be enjoyed in a large group of people. But bringing it home would be like stealing your costume after your show has finished. It might have looked great onstage, but in the cold light of day, it’s going to look very different, and ultimately end up at the back of your wardrobe, unworn.