Written for The Collective Review, 25 June 2009
At 7:00pm tonight, Helen Mirren will perform as Phèdre on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Jean Racine’s play has been running for two weeks already, but tonight’s performance is different. Tonight’s performance will be broadcast live to over 250 cinema screens in 19 countries, in an initiative the theatre calls NT Live.
If this is news to you then you’re probably too late to experience Phèdre on the big screen (though it’s still on at the National until 27 August, if you can get there). You can, however, still catch Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which will be broadcast on 1 October. By that time, more cinemas may well have signed up to participate.
In the meantime, live theatre is coming to the small screen in the form of Sky Arts Theatre Live! Sky Arts will broadcast live performances of six new plays by well-known playwrights, screenwriters and literary authors direct to your living room, in high definition, beginning in July.
So what will audiences in the cinemas or at home gain or lose compared to those sitting in the theatres themselves?
They may lose a little of theatre’s immediacy: that feeling cinema and television can’t reproduce, of being in the same room as the characters and the action. In exchange, depending on how the camera work is handled, they may gain something cinema and television can do but theatre can’t: close-ups.
Crucially, because the broadcast is live and not recorded, they won’t lose the unique, momentary nature of the performance; the knowledge that each iteration of the play is fleeting, and that no audience will have the exact same experience of the play ever again. Unless, that is, Theatre Live! becomes available on Skyplayer.
But the most important thing NT Live’s cinemagoing audience will gain is the opportunity to see a play at the National without physically making the trip to the theatre. There are participating screens in Australia and New Zealand, whose patrons would ordinarily have to travel halfway around the world to see Hytner’s Phèdre.
It might seem like hubris on the National’s part; Australia and New Zealand have perfectly good quality theatres of their own, after all. But what if those theatres – and theatres in other participating countries – were to take inspiration from NT Live (or steal the idea, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty) and arrange to broadcast some of their own productions into cinemas?
Your local cinema screen could become the National Theatre, Melbourne one night, the National Theatre of Norway the next, the Kenya National Theatre the next. You could sample live performance from around the world without incurring prohibitive travel expenses. You could experience ideas and emotions that British theatre hasn’t even realised it’s incapable of expressing. We could all grow and become better people. Will we? Probably not. But if we do, I’m taking all the credit.