National Theatre at Home: what is the future of live theatre?

By Honor Douglas

After a successful showing of archived productions during the first lockdown in the United Kingdom, the National Theatre has shown that they are forward-thinking when regarding the future of live performance. Recently, they opened a new, relatively affordable streaming service, where audiences can watch pre-Covid, popular performances from the comfort and safety of their own home.

The National Theatre at Home streaming service seems like a positive force for change

Written during the first lockdown, and performed in between the first and the second lockdown, the National Theatre put on their first show post-Covid, ‘Death of England: Delroy,’ exploring critical issues around lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter Movement. On the 27th November, the National Theatre hosted another YouTube theatre evening, broadcasting the show for the weekend. While the performance itself was compelling, it was a shame that there were times when the house lights were on; the audience were supposed to see other audience member’s reactions in a Brechtian style, but due to the masks, this was impossible. While this could have been the intention, to remind the audience of the virus itself, it was so strange to sit at home watching the theatre, and see the audience half full, socially distanced, with everyone constantly wearing their masks. While, of course, these precautions are necessary, it gave an interesting perspective on the future of theatre.

Put simply; the creative industry can afford to maintain these precautions in both the long term and the short term. To be more exact, architect John McAslan in an article for ‘The Stage,’ estimates that it would cost approximately £2.5 million per theatre to continue putting on live shows in these conditions. This has caused Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes to come up with the solution that going to the theatre should become a personal choice in risking coming face to face with coronavirus, much like going on the tube is. By giving the audience autonomy, Mendes aims to stop small theatres from closing, and bigger theatres running into large amounts of debt.

However, National Theatre’s streaming service serves to end this crisis and make some money during this difficult time. Monthly, the subscription costs £9.98, compared to an annual subscription of £99.98. Another cheaper option is to rent the shows that you wish to watch; archives are £5.99, and live plays are £7.99. This seems relatively affordable for the number of shows available to watch online with such leading stars, such as Michaela Coel and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Hopefully, in this time of difficulty, many more people can become inspired, or become nostalgic for theatre

In short, the National Theatre at Home streaming service seems like a positive force for change at this point. Not only does it encourage theatre to continue to be made and recorded during this challenging time, but also may bring another generation and group of people to the theatre. In the age of Netflix, it is easy to become accustomed to staying in to receive entertainment from acting and directing. It seems like an effort, as well as an extraordinary expense, to dress up and go to the theatre. Hopefully, in this time of difficulty, many more people can become inspired, or become nostalgic for the theatre. This will, ideally, lead to a larger audience in the future without Covid.

Of course, there are negatives to such a shift in the creation of theatre. For audiences, there is a buzz in the theatre; an excitement to dress up, and enthusiasm as you wait to find your seats, an electrifying thrill throughout the performance – and you can’t forget the lovely interval drinks. More importantly, theatre actors and directors must hear when audiences laugh, see when they are emotional about a moment, and shift their production accordingly, particularly during the opening performances. Without this, as well as the ability to pre-record, what differentiates theatre from a film? What is the point of an actor projecting, or the audience suspending their disbelief momentarily? There is a fear that the standard attributes of the theatre could be lost, not only due to the National Theatre’s service but due to the shift in people’s attitudes recently, due to the lockdown, as to how entertainment is used. A change happened, instead of using TV, film, and theatre as a treat, and for enjoyment, it became a time filler. It will be fascinating to see whether this shifts again, and what will change in the industry, as a result, should ‘normal’ life begin again.

To find out more about the new National Theatre at Home streaming service, click here.

Illustration by Charlie Barnett. National Theatre image via Shutterstock. Phone images by Mika Baumeister via Unsplash. Laptop image by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash. Tv remote image by Erik McLean via Unsplash.

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