Cinema is truth 24 times per second – Jean-Luc Godard
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, these reservations no longer apply.
Digital cameras, light and sound have changed everything. Forever.
In June 2019 I saw – at Glasgow Film Theatre – Small Island, a National Theatre production which ran at the Olivier, London in summer 2019. It’s recently been streamed as part of National Theatre at Home.
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.
It was fascinating to sit in the GFT, 400 miles away, watching the play like you’re actually there.
You also got 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. Last 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 screens 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 – or at home – 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. Last October, 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?
Screenings of theatre shows, currently at least, tend towards the famous, the large-scale and the metropolitan. London shows, beamed to the rest of the world, from properly funded companies, with well-kent actors in them.
Nothing wrong with that. But will it start to spread, to originate from other areas and other types of productions?
Why not? Technology works on any scale. Digital cameras can point at unfamiliar faces and places as well as familiar ones.
Two 2019 examples, albeit small-scale, in Scotland might point the way. Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and a Pint recently worked with the BBC Scotland channel to televise 6 of their hour-long shows – from the Chic Murray tribute, A Funny Place for a Window, to a one-man drag musical, Crocodile Rock.
After performances in the Highlands and Islands in 2017, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rocket Post was screened at the CCA in Glasgow and is available online, free.
Of course, these are not the same as NT Live events. But would it take too much to film and broadcast productions – say, from the Lyceum in Edinburgh, the Citizens’ in Glasgow and other producing companies in Scotland?
The Lyceum’s Local Hero, based on the hit film,could’ve been a contender. It was bound for London, as was Nora, the Citz version of A Doll’s House. Might shows like these be screened in future?
It’d take dedication and set-up resources, but let’s hope it may happen.
One of the liveliest screenings I’ve seen was the RSC’s Richard II, broadcast live from Stratford-on-Avon in 2013, with David Tennant in the title role.
It was exciting because this was the premiere, with all the fizz and unpredictability of a first night stage performance. It was brave of the RSC to open a fledgling show to 2 different audiences.
It gave an edge missing from the safer option of pre-recording well into the run, or broadcasting as live, but not actually simultaneously.
The Small Island screening I saw wasn’t broadcast live, having been pre-recorded some nights before the country-wide screening.
Somehow a live broadcast feels that bit edgier, a touch more authentic, than an encore, repeat encore, replay or captured live deferred screening, because stage and screen versions are happening at one and the same time.
Does this matter? Not a lot, perhaps. But it raises another issue. Can the cinema experience in any case – whether concurrent or deferred – ever be as totally real as the theatre one?
Whilst, thanks to great camera and sound work, you get nearly the whole event.
These screenings offer an experience that’s as true-to-life as it’s possible to get, short of being in the theatre.
And yet. Isn’t a performance essentially a live act between actors and audience, sharing exactly the same place at exactly the same time? It only exists there and then. That’s what makes it exciting and special.
At the Citizens’, we called it Kleenex theatre. The minute it’s done with, throw it away, forget about it.
That’s the beauty of it: fantastically vital in one peculiar set of circumstances, pointless otherwise.
Uniquely, theatre is an unrepeatable experience, an ephemeral coincidence of molecules, energy and atmosphere. It can’t be technically recreated. The result is bound to be synthetic. If you want to film a drama with actors, why not make a movie or a TV series?
Watch a play on a cinema screen? Like having a bath with your pants on!
Part of me agrees. But I’d say, given the much lower ticket price, ease of access plus the tremendous technical advances, the NT Live model is worth it.
Maybe it’s a kind of trade-off. 75% of the experience for 20% of the price.
As long as those behind the camera remember to capture the best of the live elements of theatre. It can’t just be on-screen product, another way of feeding an insatiable hunger for multi-platform spread. Would you want to watch Hamlet on your mobile?
One final question. NT Live. Cui bono? Who stands to gain?
The theatres reaching wider audiences and increasing investment into their productions. And those new audiences. And the cinemas. And NT Live.
There’s another partner. You can’t fail to notice them. They’re prominent in glossy ads, featuring the artistic great-and-good. All very cultured and alluring.
Sky Arts. Headline sponsor of NT Live productions. I’m sure the money comes in handy.
But what’s in it for them? Do they get exclusive TV screening rights to recordings of the stage event for Sky subscribers?
Most of the screened productions come from subsidised arts organisations. The origination costs for script, rehearsals, production and overheads are borne in part by the taxpayer.
How great therefore that – for the price of a cinema ticket – the finished product can be more available to the general public.
But is it right that subsequent showings of plays subsidised from the public purse should be restricted to a commercial operation like Sky, so it can profit from its sole use to paying customers?
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, July 2020.
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