Recently I attended my first ever Live Theatre on Screen event with my husband. For those that don’t know, Live Theatre on Screen is the broadcast, sometimes live via satellite, of some of the best theatre, opera and dance, to audiences in cinemas all over the world. Live Theatre on Screen really began as National Theatre Live or NT Live but quickly spread to include other theatre, opera and dance companies in Britain and Russia. Currently you can see National Theatre Live or NT Live, Stage Russia, Bolshoi Ballet, Palace Opera & Ballet, Globe on Screen and Royal Shakespeare Company.
My husband and I are irregular theatre goers these days. Kids and budgets tend to limit our attendance and demand mainstream cinema. On this day however, the kids were with Grandma and we were off to Riverside Theatres to see Saint Joan by the Donmar Theatre in London on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Parramatta.
We talked about our expectations. The hubby said he wasn’t as excited as he would normally be when attending live theatre and I have to admit, I felt the same. Intellectually I got it. A great way to see some of the best actors on the planet in critically acclaimed productions that you may or may not ever get to see performed live in Sydney. But I wasn’t excited. We wondered about how it might be filmed. Would it be flat – like looking into the “4th wall” or would the camera work be more sophisticated and more as it would be in a film?
The film was presented in one of the smaller theatre spaces at Riverside and there were maybe 20 to 30 people in attendance. It was intimate. The audience appeared to be on the mature side and at a guess, I would say they were all regular theatre goers. I was able to take my red wine in with me and we settled down to see what this Live Theatre on Screen thing was all about. I didn’t even know much about the show I would be seeing.
The previews were unlike what one would normally see in a mainstream cinema. They showcased a whole range of Live Theatre on Screen productions – ballet, opera, theatre and avant garde films you might find it difficult to see presented elsewhere. We were intrigued.
When the film began we found ourselves in the foyer of the Donmar Theatre in London with the excited hubbub of audience members rushing to take their seats (ah – the sound of the missing element of excitement!). The scene was set with the presenter talking of the director and the uniqueness of the space as well as Live Theatre on Screen in general. Now, this is not a review of Saint Joan so I’m not going to regale you with just how amazing this piece of theatre was. How luminous Gemma Arterton was in the lead role and what a joy it was to find ourselves so immersed in a brilliant production. Actually, that last point is absolutely true. We were completely absorbed – almost as much as we would have been if it had been unfolding in front of us.
I’m not going to pretend that the experience is as immediate and enthralling as live theatre but it does come close. And this is the whole point. We needn’t have been worried about the camera work – in fact – in terms of close up action we could see more than we would have if we’d been in the live audience. My husband bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t choose where to look but personally, I enjoyed being able to see all the nuances on the actor’s faces and the details of their costumes. Apparently each individual performance is set up for the best possible camera work and how it is presented on screen becomes part of the director’s expression or interpretation. I later found out that Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet was screened in black and white reminiscent of a Fellini film and is a great example of how the Live Theatre on Screen experience can sometimes actually offer more than if you’re sitting in the audience of the theatre.
I’ve since learnt that we were also probably witnessing the best performance of the production because the actors are aware that this will be the show that is recorded for the archives as well as the one with the biggest audience. Live Theatre on Screen is screened all over the world and provides theatre-makers with a truly global audience. It is estimated that Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch had an audience of 550,000 people in one live broadcast. That’s a hell of an audience and you certainly couldn’t fit that in a theatre!
One of the first things I noticed was how quiet it was. It made me realise how unaware I am of mainstream film soundtracks. There was no background music to aid the senses – just actors on a stage relying on their craft. We soon found ourselves totally immersed in the dramas unfolding on the stage in front of us, just as we would be at live theatre. At the end of the first half we heard the audience clapping and I automatically went to join in before I realised it was a film and I wasn’t really there! The actors would not hear my applause. I stopped myself from clapping but the urge was most definitely there.
When we returned to the theatre after interval, there was an interview with the director which provided great insight to the production and added to our enjoyment of it all. It was like watching the special features on a dvd and something you don’t get in mainstream cinema.
And have I mentioned the quality of the acting? Superb. Again, at the end of the second half I had to fight the urge to applaud and ‘bravo’ the actors taking their curtain call.
We thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. We chatted to a few other audience members who said they attend regularly and just love it. We talked about it all the way home. I pointed out to hubby that he watches his rugby league on the tv but still occasionally attends a live game and when we attend a concert by a major artist we end up watching it on the screens anyway because we’re too far away to see properly. How is this different? We discussed whether or not it would encourage non-theatre audiences to attend theatre and whether or not it would replace the theatre experience entirely. I think not. And I suspect that the audiences already attend live theatre and are completely aware of the quality that they are viewing and the opportunity Live Theatre on Screen represents for theatre audiences everywhere. Actually – it’s a bargain. The very highest quality at a fraction of the cost of a live theatrical experience. And when you are viewing that level of quality, the fact that it is not happening right in front of you is barely a concern and something you hardly notice.