A silver lining for theatre on screen?

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The silver screen. Home to all the explosions – and musclebound meat-stick men walking away from said explosions – that you could dream of. It’s not exactly the first place you’d think of when you’re searching for a good version of Hamlet, is it? (Unless you fancy watching the Lion King.)

Welcome to the era of theatre on the screen! The past few years have seen a significant rise in the availability of theatre for everyone, what with smash-hit cinematic adaptations or televisual experiments such as February’s Grease Live, and the recent Rocky Horror retelling. It could be argued that the boundary between TV, film and the ever-elitist theatrical realm has been broken, but is this a good thing? Is theatre on screen really all that?

One of the major problems is the veritable lack of experienced theatre talent in these highly publicised shows. You might have been tempted by the 2012 cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables, with of its cast that ranged from well-known Hollywood actors, to young upstarts such as Eddie Redmayne. Put simply, such actors can’t have had the same training or experience – especially when compared to an actor who has started their career on the stage, and worked their way into such an industry. Even overlooking Hugh Jackman, it’s clear that these huge on-screen adaptations are greatly lacking actors with the same kind of talent, who look and feel natural on stage.

Adaptations often draw more attention from those outside of the natural theatre-going audience, suggesting that productions are becoming more accessible. But this argument seems fallible, since investing into a big budget adaptation is not the same experience as witnessing a wonderful performance on stage. Rather, you risk being drawn into the razzamatazz of Hollywood glamour, a culture driven by celebrities and profits, not just by talent – as proven by Russell Crowe’s singing, seriously. Investing in such an industry can be seen to be fuelling the demise of the theatrical world, which is unquestionably smaller and more limited than the worlds of TV and film.

Admittedly, theatre in a cinema or on your own gogglebox isn’t the worst idea ever. One of the worst things about theatre is not getting a good seat – try admiring the War Horse puppet from Row Z, then you’ll understand. The National Theatre’s live recordings occasionally pop up for a night or two in the Gala, providing the chance to sneak a peek at the on-stage action. If you missed out on the front row, there is merit in popping along to these screenings.

Realistically, I’d concede that theatre on screen isn’t evil at all. Theatre is still considered to be much more of a niche form of entertainment than a night at the movies. It’s mainly larger cities (ignoring our own humble roots) that play host to a theatre, but almost everyone lives within travelling distance of a cinema. Most cinemas are also taking advantage of the theatre on screen trend. They tend to be billed as one or two night special events to come along to; if you live out in the middle of nowhere, you get to enjoy a pseudo-live performance, and they make a killing off anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to toddle off to the West End because they really, really like Shrek.

Equally, there’s been a significant rise in the availability of direct stage recordings online through sites like digitaltheatre.com. Even the good old Royal Shakespeare Company is putting some effort in, and is trying to keep up with the growing interest in online streaming. In a few years, you could be parking yourself in front of your smart TV with a cuppa in one hand, loading up a neo-Tempest re-run. Finally, I’d like to dispute my own claims – despite saying that it’s not the best way to ensure the theatrical industry stays afloat in a movie-goers world, most of the recordings that take place are officially sanctioned. Streaming is often done in a rental-style, providing consumers with infinitely more choice in shows to watch at home. And frankly, can you blame companies making the move online when Netflix is the biggest deal since the invention of sliced bread? If you could work around not being able to make money from ticket prices by recording and re-distributing the viewing rights to your productions online, I’m sure everyone would do it!

So, it’s not all bad when it comes to on-screen theatre. Sure, you might risk some seriously hammy singing or overacting, but at least it gives everyone the chance to experience an art form that’s been considered snobby, elitist and inaccessible for far too long.

Photograph: summonedbyfells, flickr

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