Insubstantial Pageant? Theatre & Live Cinema Broadcasts

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The trend for live cinema broadcasts of theatrical performances began in earnest in June 2009 masterminded by Nicholas Hytner, then Director of the National Theatre. National Theatre Live launched with a broadcast of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren. Since then National Theatre Live has received a total audience of 3.5 million people worldwide, with 550 venues in the UK alone showing their broadcasts. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) joined the silver screen in November 2013, broadcasting Richard II starring David Tennant to 60,000 people under the name RSC: Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon and in collaboration with Picturehouse Cinemas. Many other theatres have since developed broadcast capabilities of their own.

My first experience of theatre in the cinema was a National Theatre Live broadcast of Frankenstein by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, (both future Sherlocks) trading places as the titular character and his monster. I travelled, grumpy at the early hour (it was a mid-morning start and I’m a night owl by nature), with my then girlfriend to see it in a cinema in Nottingham. At the time, no Leicester cinemas were carrying the NT Live performances. Since then, I’ve only managed to get to two further broadcasts, both at Leicester’s excellent independent cinema, Phoenix, and both by the RSC – Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing) in summer of this year, and most recently, Othello starring Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago.

The experience of watching theatre on a cinema screen is a strange one, playing with expectations as it does. Because of the nature of filming, the audience in the cinema gets the best view in the house. For people like me, who can only usually afford restricted view seats at Stratford-Upon-Avon, it’s great to be able to see everything in such glorious detail. Having the cameras there to pick up the best view of the action means that there’s no more craning your neck around a pillar to get a look what’s going on.

There’s also a convenience aspect to it. I don’t currently have a car, so getting to Stratford-Upon-Avon means being at the mercy of trains, which sometimes don’t run late enough. London is a little easier, but the additional cost in addition to the ticket price makes it difficult to do regularly. To be able to leisurely stroll down to the local cinema and not have to worry about not being able to get home afterwards is great.

More widely, live broadcasts make theatre available to a range of people. Lower ticket prices and ease of access mean that more people than ever can enjoy theatre being produced in the UK, and this also has its impact on the world stage, where people around the globe can enjoy theatre in live broadcasts or encore broadcasts (which arefilmed live and shown later). This is positive for theatres, which can reap the benefits of reaching a bigger audience, an audience who then might be more likely to pay a visit to the theatre or support them with donations, especially when arts funding is being cut left, right and centre.

Similarly, it increases audience share for theatre, something that is needed in a society where people have endless television and film at the click of a button. There’s a sense in which bringing theatre to the screen also brings people to the theatres; those responsible for the broadcasting and those theatres in their local region. People who had previously never considered a theatre trip might well do so after viewing a live broadcast. More interest in theatre can only be a good thing.

It’s good for cinemas too – it gets people through their doors that may previously have not come to films. That’s especially good for independent cinemas, which rely more firmly on ticket sales for their continuing existence.

It’s not all positives, though. Theatre is a thing of intimacy, of immediacy, and some of that is lacking when it comes to the live broadcasts. Although it was great to see Lucian Msamati interacting with the audience around him as he soliloquised in Othello, for example, the connective tissue would have been thicker had I been there in the same room. There’s something about being in the theatre that can’t be replicated by the live broadcasts. For me, it’s that sense of intimacy, the sense that the performance is just for you.

The atmosphere is also different. There’s something about the electric nature of being in a theatre audience. Speeches, pauses, movements and silences can be felt in the theatre in a way that doesn’t quite come across in the cinema. Perhaps I’ve been dogged with poor audiences, but it seems to me that it’s because it’s part of being present in the room with the performers. Microphones, as sensitive as they, can’t pick it up.

A more personal thing is that I enjoy watching people react to what’s being said as much as I enjoy watching the people speaking. When you’re there in the theatre, it’s up to you who you watch. You can look at Messenger 2 and enjoy the intricacies of their performance even while the lead is doing their thing. With the cameras leading the visual aspect, you don’t always have this luxury.

But these objections aren’t all that important. They would only really stand if the concept was to replace live theatre with live broadcasts, which isn’t at all the case. Live broadcasts still have energy and quality, they still have atmosphere, even if it’s different, and with the best seats in the house you can watch more-or-less whatever you like most of the time.

Overall, theatre in the cinema is a good thing. It’s good for theatres, it’s good for cinemas, and it’s good for audiences. The more people who have access to theatre the better; all the world’s a stage and that includes the silver screen.

Nick Palmer