Private Viewing: Live West End broadcasts are revolutionising our theatre

Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, with Johnny Lee Miller as the monster, in the National

Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, with Johnny Lee Miller as the monster, in the National Theatre production which has become one of the great successes of the NT Live programme - Credit: Archant

Live broadcasts from the West End to UK cinemas are one of the best things to happen to theatre says arts editor Andrew Clarke

Dame Judi Dench (L) with Gillian Anderson pictured at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Both actresse

Dame Judi Dench (L) with Gillian Anderson pictured at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Both actresses have had acclaimed West End performances broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live cinema broadcasts. - Credit: PA

I think that one of the great theatrical revolutions over the last five years – and one of the great successes – is the advent of NT Live. For those who don’t know NT Live is the transmission of a theatrical performance from the West End to cinemas across the country.

As its name suggests the National Theatre, a publicly-funded body, was one of the first arts organisations to embrace new technology as a means to reach new audiences and by broadcasting some its finest work make the National Theatre truly national.

It was such a success that other-leading cultural bodies like the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House and The Globe soon signed up to broadcast showcase performances too. These organisations all receive public funding and so it is understandable that they want to be seen to be reaching out to new audiences but the real acid test has been the fact that commercial organisations have been beaming productions out to the nation’s cinemas. West End shows like Billy Elliot and Kenneth Branagh’s staging of The Winter’s Tale have been huge successes and the fact that they been screened in cinemas have not affected theatre attendances. In fact they have acted as a dynamic promotional event.

People have seen Billy Elliot, WarHorse or some other on-going West End show, realised what a fantastic experience it is and, having seen it on the big screen, are only too anxious to book tickets to see it live.

Billy Elliot’s producers reported a significant upsurge in bookings after it’s live transmission.

Demand for NT Live has been so strong for some performances that recorded encore screenings are shown up to a month after the original broadcast and some screenings like Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s Frankenstein, The incident of the Dog In The Night, or David Tennant’s Richard II or Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth at the Manchester Festival have enjoyed a repeat screening months later and again bring in packed houses.

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NT Live has become a phenomenon. It is the first time that television cameras have accurately captured the thrill of watching a live performance in a theatre. This past year the number of screenings has more than doubled and British plays and being augmented with high profile events like the Broadway production Of Mice and Men starring Chris O’Dowd and James Franco or live screenings from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The reason that these live cinema transmissions are such a success is partly down to the way that digital technology has evolved and the intuitive way that theatre has adopted it.

The live broadcasts are now not only shot with many, many cameras but the cameras are light, unobtrusive and capture the scene in high-definition which places cinema audiences in the heart of the action. The theatre audience isn’t forgotten. Their presence is acknowledged, they are put on screen, before the play begins and the cinema is presented as an extension of the theatre’s auditorium.

The development of digital technology also means that the stage doesn’t need to be flooded with light, as was the case in the past, and so what is broadcast is a true representation of the show.

NT Live doesn’t replace live theatre, it complements it. It’s also the best thing we have (until hologram technology becomes a viable reality) to preserve an accurate copy of a theatre show.

The fact that theatre is transitory is both its strength and its weakness. Until now once a theatre performance is over it could only live in your memory. The 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft has gone down in theatre legend as a classic production. It is preserved in the form of rave reviews – “This is the stuff of theatre legend” – but no-one really knows what it was like. Today, thanks to NT Live, when Gillian Anderson receives similar rave reviews as Blanche in Street Car Named Desire, we can see why people were so excited.

It helps also that theatre acting has become less declamatory, more naturalised, thanks to better acoustics and, on occasions, small radio mikes. Theatre is all about reaching out and involving the audience and the rise of NT Live has made some of the best theatre available to a vast number of people. It has helped destroy false perceptions of elitism and there is evidence it has persuaded more people to go to the theatre and enjoy live performance. That can only be good.

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