A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a lovely night of West End theatre with my mother. We’re both massive fans of Dame Helen Mirren, especially her work in The Queen. So we were eager to witness her Olivier award-winning reprisal of that royal role in The Audience, Peter Morgan’s acclaimed new play that imagines the weekly private audiences Elizabeth has enjoyed (or endured) with each of the Prime Ministers she’s encountered thus far in her 61-year reign.
Vexingly, mom and I are, more often than not, an elevenish-hour flight away from the likes of Mirren and the Gielgud Theatre these days. But through the technological wizardry of NT Live (and the evening did contain some unexpectedly magical moments) that gap of nearly 5,000 miles was reduced to a five-minute cab ride.
Because we did not have to go to London. We had merely to travel along the banks of the Willamette (which can occasionally appear sort of Thames-like if you drink a bit, or possess an unusually healthy imagination, or squint) to the modest home of Third Rail Repertory Theatre in the heart of Portland, Oregon, of all places. There, in a smallish, unadorned grey cinema, the very best of the West End came to us.
I am, as it happens, acutely aware of just how very good the West End can be. In the flesh, I’ve seen Jude Law do Hamlet at Wyndham’s Theatre, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (by the way, those two timeless titans of the British stage are set to reprise their roles as Estragon and Vladimir respectively on Broadway this autumn, if you’re into that sort of thing), as well as Dan Stevens and Ed Stoppard in Arcadia at Duke of York’s, to name just a few.
I’ve also seen As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s one of my absolute favorites by the Bard, and I’ve yet to encounter a production of it that I enjoy more.
As you might expect, most of my experiences with old-fashioned, in-person British theatre have been utterly unforgettable. A couple have been life-altering.
How, then, could anybody honestly hope to replicate the sort of charged, intimate, transformative experience one so often enjoys when witnessing live theatre by simply beaming a broadcast of a show around the world?
It’s a reasonable enough question. And when the National Theatre first began pursuing the idea, there were plenty of skeptics.
There’s a good reason why a night out at the theatre commands an exponentially higher price tag than a night at the local multiplex, isn’t there? My husband, a lifelong theatre aficionado and occasional amateur actor and stage manager, often speaks of the powerful bond that is forged between performers and audience members when a production is pulled off properly. It’s inimitable, isn’t it?
Yes, I think it probably is. But that doesn’t mean that this new trend of live or nearly live “stage-on-screen” broadcasting can’t pack emotional punch or foster impressively wider access to enriching and enjoyable drama.
No, it isn’t the real thing. It isn’t the genuine article. You aren’t actually sharing oxygen in a tiny room with the most enormous talents alive (and we all know that that’s half the fun).
But it isn’t the version that turns up on PBS (at some small hour of the morning, five years after the original run) either. It is at least something more than that. In most cases, you’re watching a live or nearly live version of a currently running production. It’s something you could walk in off the street and see that same day if you found yourself in London with a load of money in your pockets. It’s the thing that all the critics and theatre geeks are talking about at the moment. You’re elegantly sidestepping the cruel waiting game that international fans of UK-generated entertainment are so often forced to play. You’re not waiting around for a DVD that may never get made. You’re a part of what’s new and now, regardless of geography.
More than a million fans of British theatre worldwide have succumbed to the irresistible appeal of this, myself now included. And we’re spreading the word. The Audience recently broke the box office record for an NT Live broadcast, drawing a live or nearly live audience of more than 110,000 worldwide in nearly 700 theatres across 25 countries, prompting ongoing “encore screenings” to run throughout the summer (details below).
When the taped curtain call rolled at our screening last month, the sold-out crowd in my tiny Oregon theatre clapped and whistled and cheered without a second thought. It seemed the natural thing to do. We had forgotten entirely that the actors couldn’t hear the customary sounds of our appreciation, and I think that speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the “stage-on-screen” experience.
Below, you’ll find links to details about some really exciting ongoing and upcoming broadcasts from NT Live and Globe on Screen.
Nuanced performances by the likes of Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus and Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth (via NT Live), and Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night (via Globe on Screen), may soon be as accessible to you as the latest Hollywood fast car movie.
I’ll give you one guess at what I’ll be watching.