Live Theatre Broadcasts – As Good as the Real Thing?

Ben Huxley

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

After a successful run on Broadway, Sean Mathias’ production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land is finishing its UK tour on the West End this month. The real selling point is its stars – Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, so I’m surprised it hasn’t sold out yet. It will soon, however, and there’ll be a lot of disappointments. But this isn’t the reason I won’t be seeing it; if I lived in London, or any of the cities on the tour, I’d have bought my ticket quite some time ago. That’s the difficulty of living, as people tend to say, in the middle of nowhere. This is the epitome of a first world problem, however – especially when we can view it by other means.  

The somewhat inevitable heroes coming to our rescue are film crews. In the UK we have National Theatre Live, who broadcast theatre performances in cinemas across the country. Sometimes it’s live, occasionally we see a recording a couple of weeks after. No Man’s Land will be screened at my local cinema, which is conveniently a twenty minute walk from my home. 

A live screening has two directors; stage and cinematic. The cinematic director ultimately decides how we watch the play, which, for me, is the biggest disadvantage. With the close ups of actors faces, we aren’t allowed to let our eyes roam the stage. A lot of the time it isn’t the actor delivering the line that’s important, but the reactions of other cast members. 
Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet was an odd one; the whole thing was shot in black and white. Branagh has stated that this was due to the production’s Italian film noir influence, which was evident enough with the costumes and set. 

So most of the time the screenings aren’t providing us with a virtual-theatre experience; it’s more of a live film. Perhaps this is just as well – it’s impossible to replicate the atmosphere of the theatre in a cinema. A single shot of the stage from the back of the theatre without any zooms would be, let’s face it, theatre without the atmosphere. That’s not to say that the atmosphere is there with camera zooms – but something else is. 

Although the performers aren’t acting for screen, we see something interestingly candid in a close up of their face. In Anna D Shapiro’s production of Of Mice and Men, those sitting at the back of the theatre wouldn’t have been able to see James Franco and Chris O’Dowd’s eyes welling up in the final scene. In the screening of Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre, we saw the innocent and terror-ridden expressions on Madeleine Worral’s face filling our 10x30 foot cinema screens. 

So watching what I’ll call a “film version” of a stage performance isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s a taster of live theatre, with a bit of Hollywood thrown in. Also, I’ve heard arguments that it’ll somehow stop people from going to the real thing – but this is rubbish. I don’t see how broadcasting quality theatre to corners of the country where people are rarely exposed to it can be a bad thing.