Don’t you love it when eternal truths turn out to be neither eternal nor true?
In the theatre, one eternal truth used to be: Don’t let the cameras in.
If a TV or film company wanted to film an extract from a play, the answer (at the Citizens’ at least) was always the same.
The set would look flat, the lighting drab, the sound hollow and the actors stiff. How could a two-dimensional medium capture three?
Now, as NT Live marks 10 years’ broadcasting theatre shows via satellite to hundreds of cinemas throughout the world, these reservations no longer apply.
Digital cameras, light and sound have changed everything. Forever.
Last June I saw – at Glasgow Film Theatre – Small Island, a National Theatre production which ran at the Olivier, London in summer 2019.
It’s an ambitious show. Huge cyclorama, double-sided screens, a revolve and 40 actors on an enormous stage.
There are also intimate, domestic scenes. Close-up acting of family relationships. Like Hortense, the perjinkt spitfire newly migrated from Jamaica, trying to settle into her husband’s tiny London bedsit.
Shifts in scale and focus, sweeping history, intrepid travels to a new world, the petty prejudice of local places and private domesticity – all conveyed vividly to both types of audience.
Fascinating to sit in the GFT, 400 miles away, watching the play like you’re actually there.
You also get shots of the theatre audience and their reactions, their buzz. As if you’re in with the in-house crowd.
Thanks to this new reality, thousands of people can watch productions previously unavailable to them by dint of geography, price and limited seats.
The theatre-only audience numbers are hugely multiplied when a show gets the NT Live treatment.
Since 2009 they’ve done 80 live broadcasts. This year, plays like Richard II, One Man, Two Guvnors, All My Sons, The Lehman Trilogy, Fleabag and Present Laughter watched in 65 different countries, 2500 venues, 700 of them in the UK.
The audience statistics must blow normal playhouse attendance figures out of the park.
As a theatre manager, I watched our box office returns to the point of obsession. I’d love to get a swatch at the total numbers of people seeing these shows, once all the cinemas are included.
For most people running theatres, accessibility has always been a fundamental goal. This innovation offers a phenomenal connection with a new public.
I also find it amazing to see how sophisticated cameras and lighting have made this happen. No flat, drab, hollow and stiff. With the right positions, angles and number of cameras, cinema audiences miss nothing: close-ups of actors’ faces, wide, full and long shots.
Sound, too, can now be astonishingly faithful. One of the best screenings I’ve seen was La Traviata (my favourite opera ever since I saw Zeffirelli’s 1982 movie!). This was the 2014 production from Glyndebourne.
What pleasure to be immersed in the detail, visually and sonically. The camera and microphone scripts must have been as thorough as preparations for the staged opera. And they captured not just the singers, but the orchestra as well.
I’ve never been to Glyndebourne, nor plan to. It’s nearly 500 miles away and ticket prices are exorbitant. Like thousands of others, I can now have a front row seat and watch opera from the New York Met, Covent Garden, and the London Coliseum. For a fraction of the price.
One of the funniest moments in Small Island is when the doddery dad disappears, in his armchair, through a hole in the floor. The 2019 cinema audience loved this old trick. Amongst all the cutting-edge, here’s an effect from the 18th century. Possibly earlier: was there a trap door in Shakespeare’s Globe for the grave scene in Hamlet?
Plus, we get late 1940’s newsreel of the Windrush ship, overlaid with hi-tech projections of silhouettes (named after Etienne de Silhouette, 1709 -1767, by the way!) of people leaving Jamaica.
Then there’s a racist punch-up in a cinema which is showing a film, also from the late forties.
So, you’re in a cinema, watching actors in a theatre watching a film in a cinema.
This heady mixture of techniques, old and new, is echoed in some ambiguities amongst the audience.
To what extent are you in tune with the live audience in the theatre? Do you reiterate their buzz of anticipation before the curtain goes up, share their quietening hush as it does?
And, if there’s an interval, do you go out for a drink at the bar, as they’re likely to?
Most puzzling of all: do you clap at the end, while the actors take their curtain call? What’s the point? It’s not as if they can hear you!
I’m always bemused at the equivocal, hesitant applause (mine included) in these circumstances. Sure, it’s a play, not a film. You want to show your appreciation – though, why?
But maybe it depends on the occasion. Recently, I watched the Scotland – Japan World Cup rugby match on a large screen in a pub. No reticence here; we yelled our heads off at the oddly unresponsive Scottish team.
Opening up theatre to thousands of people. Fantastic new technical possibilities.
What’s not to like?
Next time, in Part 2, I’ll try to answer that question.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, October 2019.
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