Cinemas across the world are now showing live performances from the National Theatre. But will anyone turn up?by John Nathan / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
London Assurance in Finland, photographed by the author: struggling to find an audience
Helena Pikkarainen, her husband Timo and their 16-year-old daughter Keela are on their way to see their first ever National Theatre production: the 19th-century farce London Assurance. From their home, it will take about 30 minutes to drive to their destination—not bad going considering they live in the tidy northern Finnish village of Tyrnaevae, 200km south of the Arctic Circle.
In December, Tyrnaevae’s days last just three hours. At this point in late June, though, it is warm and the sun has been up for 22 of the last 24 hours. Helena and her family are heading for the city of Oulu (home to the world air-guitar championships) because NT Live is coming to town.
London Assurance is the fifth and final play in the pilot season of NT Live, an initiative that sees the National Theatre broadcasting selected performances to cinemas across the world—320 in the case of London Assurance. From Narva in Estonia to Wagga Wagga in Australia, for two hours and 40 minutes Hollywood is in competition with a Victorian farce starring two of the finest classical actors in theatre: Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw.
At the eight-screen Finnkino cinema in Oulu, the films on offer include the latest Twilight feature, The A-Team, Robin Hood and Vaehaen Kunnioitusta—the only Finnish production being shown. The film’s heroine is a disabled teenager. Helena’s daughter doesn’t like Finnish films—she thinks they’re boring. The last time she was at the Finnikino it was to watch Wolfman.
The queue at the box office is supervised by a giant dog wearing dark glasses—a model of Marmaduke, the galumphing Great Dane of the eponymous comic strip and Hollywood movie. Behind Marmaduke, the words London Assurance shine out from the electronic display. The production went down a storm with London critics, but sandwiched between The A-Team and Robin Hood it looks a little incongruous.
The broadcast has already started by the time Helena and family enter. The play proper has not yet begun—instead there is a playful preface to establish a carnival atmosphere. Jugglers are entertaining the South Bank crowd. Behind them is a huge NT Live logo. Perhaps brand-promotion is the point here, but judging by messages left on NT Live’s Facebook page these preliminaries don’t go down too well.
In the cinema, Helena, Timo and Keela take a moment to get used to the light. Then they are confronted by an unexpected sight. They are the only people in the auditorium (apart from me, and I don’t count). In fact, it is worse than that. Helena works for the local tourist board, and it was only when she heard I was visiting Oulu for Prospect that she decided to buy tickets. So Helena, Timo and Keela don’t count either. They stand blinking at the utterly empty seats. At the last minute, three more people—genuine ticket-buyers—enter.
Now the broadcast has switched to the Olivier theatre’s packed stalls: in London the show is a sell-out. There is a hushed expectation. Every stray cough and sniffle is relayed to us almost 2,000 miles away.
Actor John Shrapnel—who played Theramene in Racine’s Phedre as part of the very first NT Live broadcast—would later tell me that he had never felt such fear onstage. “It’s a different kind of nervousness, knowing just how many faces are watching the broadcast, and that if you do crash and burn how big that error would be.” In Oulu, it wouldn’t be so big. But there were no crashes. Russell Beale and Shaw delivered two of the funniest performances on the London stage—and now, the international screen—this year.
It’s clear, though, that extra care needs to be taken to prevent comedies feeling like TV sitcoms when they are filmed. During close-ups, laughter from the theatre audience can sound awfully canned in the cinema. Visually, the broadcasts are a less sophisticated experience than either theatre in the flesh or real cinema. Sets end before the edge of a camera’s frame. Light glares off foreheads. In close-up, every bead of sweat on an actor’s brow glistens and there appeared to be no attempt physically to tone down the performances for the screen. From the cinema, it sometimes looked like the return of the silent era—only with sound.
Where the technique needs most work is in the camera direction. There is a temptation to show the sophistication of the operation with close-ups and camera sweeps. But when the director cuts to a close-up you lose at least as much as you gain. In one scene I knew a character was secretly listening to a conversation only because I had seen the play in London—something my fellow cinema-goers only realised when they were finally shown the listener, like an afterthought.
The Finnish appetite for British theatre may be underwhelming, but live broadcasts are here to stay across the performing arts. The Royal Opera House is already preparing the next step with a 3D version of Carmen, and it’s hard to see the National (which has already announced the second season of NT Live) resisting 3D for long. Even in two dimensions, though, live broadcast is a huge undertaking. NT Live costs around £150,000 per show: one pound for each of the cinema-goers estimated to have watched a production. Within the theatre itself, cameras are positioned around the auditorium so that the audience, which is charged less than for an ordinary staging of the play, can follow the action both onstage and on monitors.
Despite the expense, it’s easy to see why, more than a decade after digital technology began to transform the market for recorded music, live performance across the arts is being swept up by its own digital revolution. The key word is “access.” Thanks to its recent free public screenings, for instance, the Royal Opera House can more easily counter the elitism criticism traditionally levelled at it. Suddenly, the £28m that Arts Council England doles out to it looks like a snip. Everyone’s a winner.
Except, of course, there is no increased access to the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre or anywhere else. What people have access to is a (very) widescreen high-definition television. Soon it’ll be 3D. It has even been suggested that HD 3D broadcasts will be transmitted directly into the home.
Which is all fine. But it’s not the real thing. It’s great that you can buy beautifully printed posters of Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond from the National Gallery. But you’d laugh if the gallery said that the poster gave you access to the painting.
In fact, new media may be making redundant the one thing that makes theatre precious—that it is ephemeral. Today, thanks to state-of-the-art recording, theatre can be both broadcast and permanent. Is this a good thing? I have my doubts. I wish I’d been alive to see Paul Robeson’s RSC Othello in 1959, but I thank God I can’t catch up with it on my laptop. Imagine this: Paul Robeson, his huge frame, his fathom-deep voice, this planet of a man being streamed onto a cramped window on my computer screen. After watching this—no theatre, no hush, no applause, no danger, no risk, no reward—could I really say that I had seen Robeson’s Othello?
The National doesn’t do downloads of its productions—yet. But the thing that was once ephemeral now exists in a form that the marketing people at NT Live describe as “captured.” Unless someone deletes the files, the “captured” plays have to be stored. And the logic of accessibility is that one day someone is going to get access—if not to these plays, then to others. This will make a great research tool. But the legacy of a play will no longer be the collective memory of those who saw it, their descriptions of what it was like and how it made them feel. What, then, is being “captured”? There is an obvious paradox: by making theatre permanent, you lose something forever.
Moreover, theatre is being promoted on cinema’s terms. On the Australian NT Live website, the stellar cast of London Assurance suddenly doesn’t sound quite so starry. Simon Russell Beale’s credits are listed as the film Orlando and “TV’s Dance to the Music of Time.” You’d have thought he’d been out of work for 15 years. Fiona Shaw, it says, is in the Harry Potter series.
Back in Oulu, Helena, Timo and Keela enjoyed London Assurance. So did the three other audience members, one of whom defended the low attendance. There had been little promotion, she said, and it was the summer holidays in Finland (although this hadn’t stopped 350 people watching Sex and the City 2). Sixteen-year-old Keela had the last word: “I am definitely coming back—I want to see Frankenstein.” Directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, the play will be broadcast by NT Live in early 2011. It is sure to be spectacular, and to attract a global audience. It may even end up being viewed for decades to come. It will be more than theatre—and also, perhaps, less.