Should live theatre be shown in cinemas?
30th October 2013
Should live theatre be shown in cinemas?
With David Tennant’s Richard II coming to a cinema near you, are multiplexes are the future of theatre? First published, Daily Telegraph 30 Oct, 2013.
On Saturday November 2 the National Theatre will turn into the South Bank’s answer to Broadcasting House. A television production crew will colonise it to beam its 50th anniversary gala, via satellite, live to the nation (on BBC Two) and to cinemas around the world. A showcase of such logistical daring has never been attempted in the theatre’s history. Nicholas Hytner, the NT’s supremo, is going to town with a cavalcade of 100 actors performing 26 extracts.
As David Sabel, the executive producer of the evening, suggests, it’s like “the National’s equivalent of the Olympics opening ceremony”. Yet when we meet, the young American could hardly seem more confident. As the National’s director of broadcast and digital, he has delivered its NT Live programme, an experimental initiative so successful that some two million people to date have watched NT shows on the big screen, in a vast geographical spread.
Though co-produced by the BBC, to all intents and purposes the 50th anniversary shindig is an in-house NT Live event – the first to be seen on the small screen. “No disrespect to the BBC, who have been fantastic,” Sabel says, “but you couldn’t do the kind of show we’re doing if it was just the BBC coming in and filming it. The broadcast element of it is being created by us at the same time as the event itself. Normally when we do NT Live the production already exists – here we don’t have that safety net, so they’re both being developed on the same track.”
He’s entitled to blow his own trumpet. A change in the way we “consume” theatre has happened since NT Live’s inception at Hytner’s behest in 2009 with Phèdre. No longer do you have to be in the building on the night to get a ringside view of the action and experience a sense of occasion. These days, between 100,000 and 150,000 people can watch a typical NT Live broadcast from the comfort of their local cinema. When you consider that the Olivier theatre holds a little more than a thousand spectators, the National’s output has acquired the trappings of a mass medium. Sure, we’re not talking Premier League numbers – but the gulf that once existed between the kind of audiences Laurence Olivier could reach on the silver screen and on the stage is shrinking, thanks to the roll-out of digital cinema technology in the past decade.
The RSC is following suit. Those unable to get to see David Tennant in Richard II in Stratford-upon-Avon or London can relax because next month the production will be broadcast live to more than 100 cinemas, overseas as well as in Britain. Both Henry IV plays and The Two Gentlemen of Verona will get the same treatment next year; at a stroke, a broad demographic will be kept in the Shakespearean loop.
Both of these leading subsidised houses are setting a premium on the idea that the show is relayed in real time; there are “encore” (repeat) screenings, but the thrust is to foster a sense of must-see urgency to people’s attendance. For this reason, the National has resisted the idea of making productions available in other formats – downloads or DVDs – or extending the NT Live runs.
“We like the idea of a limited window,” Sabel says. “The idea that you go along, get a piece of paper like a programme and hopefully watch with a sold-out crowd feels more akin to the DNA of theatre than staying at home and pausing while you go off to make a cup of tea.” He thinks cinema going has been inadvertently rejuvenated: “Cinemas love it. They’re getting an audience that might not have come in to see films. What’s interesting is that it feels like it’s going back to the days of the big film opening – the old-fashioned idea of going out for a special night. It flies in the face of a culture that’s about on-demand.”
Another company that has joined this crossover adventure is Digital Theatre, a pioneering outfit, only four years old, that specialises in creating high-quality downloads of shows such as All My Sons, starring David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker, and Much Ado About Nothing, with Tennant and Catherine Tate. Its method is different from the National’s – whereas the NT plants cameras and crew in the midst of the auditorium, privileging the cinemagoers’ perspective, the Digital Theatre team uses small remote-operated cameras the theatre audience barely notices and then subjects the footage to a painstaking edit. This week, its recording of the hit West End transfer of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along played at cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic. Next year, it’ll be Coward’s Private Lives, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor.
A few years ago, the argument that a cinema viewing could begin to rival or complement a theatrical experience had yet to be won. Sabel notes: “The track record of filmed live performance is quite bad – the fear is that it becomes the antithesis of what the art form is.” Now, the idea that a recording can be an acceptable substitute for a live theatre broadcast seems to be taking hold. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of something extraordinary,” says Digital Theatre’s co-founder Robert Delamere. One thing’s for sure: whoever has the task of combing through the National’s vaults for archive footage for the 100th anniversary will be spoilt for choice.