Digital Theatre: The West End’s 21st Century Makeover

DigitalTheatreBy Victoria Ferguson

For those of you who rarely get the opportunity to take advantage of the diversity of London’s first-class dramatic scene, there is a new solution that means that you no longer have to miss out: the filming of theatre. I know that it sounds like something that a naughty schoolboy with a handheld camera and a popular YouTube channel might come up with, but the project has already achieved huge success, with initiatives such at NT Live (which broadcasts National Theatre performances live to cinemas across the globe) and Digital Theatre (which films popular productions for Internet streaming) benefiting from sell-out nights to rival those of the more traditional alternative.

Last year, I went to see the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair. Despite my initial scepticism that it would be an evening of exchanging empathetic looks with the people around me –so you didn’t even manage to get ‘Restricted View’ seats at the theatre either – I came out sold on the idea.

I suppose that the best way that I can explain it is by comparing it to sport. Watching the final of the Six Nations or the World Cup or Wimbledon and knowing that it is happening right now – knowing that what happens in this moment has never happened before and will never happen again – grips millions of spectators sitting in their living rooms. Of course it isn’t the same as seeing it live, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling the excitement of it all and yelling at the ref on the screen as though it will make a difference.

It is still spontaneous and open to the impulsive strokes of genius of a live performance

It’s the same with theatre. Nothing compares to seeing a brilliant actor from the stalls, so close that you feel that you could touch them. But being able to see a live broadcast of that brilliant actor when all the tickets sold out weeks ago and your bank balance is saying no way José? Well, that seems like a pretty decent alternative to me.

It isn’t like watching a movie. The performance is live and so every night it will inevitably be a little bit different. It is still spontaneous and open to the mistakes and impulsive strokes of genius of a live performance.

I recently went to a question and answer session with Danny Boyle, who directed the National Theatre’s Frankenstein. He described working on the play as ‘a warm-up’ for the Olympic Opening Ceremony, which would also occupy the bizarre no-man’s-land between live production and television broadcast.  One thing that Boyle said is that the way in which the director and the camera team have to work together on projects like this is a very new concept. Like a film, someone else is deciding what you, the audience, see. But they have to be prepared for things changing or going wrong and so it takes a delicate balance of a carefully choreographed symphony of camera angles and quick responses to quirks on the night that ensure that you get the best view in the house.

Digital Theatre is a slightly different concept to NT Live in that the performances have been pre-recorded. That doesn’t mean that Digital Theatre doesn’t have its value. The nature of theatre means that shows only run for a limited period and then they’re gone. Digital Theatre means that you can buy the recording of that show that you so wanted to see but missed just as easily as you can download a song from iTunes.

If you’re still sceptical, then I have to stress that you shouldn’t feel threatened by this new technology. It should be viewed as an ‘as well as’ and not an ‘instead of.’ Very few of us were able to secure tickets to the Olympic Opening Ceremony, but that didn’t mean that we reserved the evening for sulkily scanning Facebook for the photos and elated statuses of those lucky few who did go to the Olympic stadium to see Emeli Sandé and Kenneth Branagh and Emeli Sandé and the Olympians and Emeli Sandé and Emeli Sandé. I for one still watched it and still felt part of a moment of national history. And, when I saw that we had only reached the letter ‘G’ in the athletes’ parade, I was able to switch over to the movie channel and make myself a snack until things had moved along a bit.

It should be viewed as an ‘as well as’ and not an ‘instead of’

So I think that there is definitely a healthy market for digital theatre. It will never be able to compete with an evening at the theatre, but it is not trying to. It is providing people who have limited time, limited funds or who live in the godforsaken middle of nowhere access to one of the most innovative and exciting creative arts industries in the world. If you’re the ‘see it to believe it’ type, then you can experience it yourself in June when Peter Morgan’s The Audience, starring Helen Mirren, will be broadcast live to our very own Gala theatre. Now even Durham is just a stone’s throw away from Shaftesbury Avenue!

The real issue is this: popcorn or ice-cream? Or does this exciting new way of seeing the latest West End productions deserve a new archetypal snack all of its own?

Photograph: Nicoletta Asciuto

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