Why NT Live blazes the trail for 21st century theatrical evolution

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The success of the  live screening of the National Theatre’s Phedre this week in 70 cinemas through NT  Live has sent up a flare signalling the future for theatre and how it can  become both exponentially more democratically accessible and available and also more economically viable.

That most esteemed of theatre critics, Michael Billington, was at the Chelsea Cinema for the premiere and his review in The Guardian surely will startle the doubters and traditionalists of the theatre world  who believe that being in the auditorium is the only place for the play.

He writes:

I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.

Once the show started, I and the rest of the audience sat spellbound. For a start, Bob Crowley’s set, with its sweeping platform and vast open sky, looked beautiful: I could even see, as I couldn’t in the theatre, how the palace walls were pocked and weathered by time. Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner’s production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.

So what does the success of this screen Phèdre tell us? Partly that a cinema audience can be as moved as people sitting in the theatre: everyone applauded loudly at the curtain call just as if they were in the Lyttelton. But the main lesson is that a theatre production can be made democratically available to a mass audience without any loss of quality: indeed because the camera can mix close-up and long shot and because we can all hear easily, the aesthetic impact may actually be enhanced. For generations we have been told that the theatre is elitist. Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe. The National already has plans to broadcast three more plays over the next year. But my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed.

With the advent of 3D screening, the potential for further extending the availability and intensity of the theatrical experience will be increased.  Live screening will revolutionise the business model for theatre and make it more economically viable for those theatre companies able to produce great work and then sell more tickets than available for the performance in the theatre.

The ramifications for our current theatre infrastructure could be profound.  If we can all have access to world class national and top flight theatre in our comfortable cinemas at low cost, will we be still be willing to take the risk attending our local theatres where not only will the offer be less reliable but we have to queue for the loos?

Will the public funders, confronted by the constraints of their less public sector resources over the next period, be willing to continue to subsidise some of the companies and venues which they have supported in more prosperous times?

We need to recognise the revolution in theatre making and embrace the potential to make great theatre available to all of us.  We need more local, collaborative and community theatre projects and we also need to provide venues which will house the live screenings of great theatre, now and in the 3D future.  This means that communities should have creative hubs, neutral centres for creative experiences including screenings, debates and discourse, performances and socialising, a 21st century refreshments of the civic theatre of the 20th century.

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