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16th November 2015

Theatre goes digital: The ‘live broadcast’ revolution

British theatre performances are welcoming up to two million live viewers from cinemas across the world thanks to a creative ‘live viewing’ platform

We now have the potential to vastly enhance our experience of contemporary entertainment and revolutionise the arts, with efforts being made to bridge the gap between the big, bold world of cinema and its quietly sophisticated cousin—theatre. National Theatre Live has been at the forefront of these innovations for a few years now, operating directly from the National Theatre and The Barbican in London. Their live broadcasts of theatrical performances reach over 700 screens worldwide and are subsequently setting the bar high for the likes of Royal Shakespeare Company, who have also chosen to ‘go digital.’

NT Live does well to strike a balance between farcically filling the stage with celebrities and giving classically trained performers the exposure they deserve. Take for example, the performance of Hamlet which was broadcasted directly from The Barbican last month. It didn’t take long to realize that the (largely female) audience were diehard Cumberfans—yet the celebrity protagonist in no way detracted from an expert cast that knew the stage like the back of their hand.

Besides, the ‘celebrities’ that wider audiences are flocking to see are no strangers to theatre themselves. Ralph Fiennes, both a noted Shakespeare interpreter and Harry Potter villain, delivered a flawless performance as Jack Tanner in Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman during the summer. Bringing household names to the stage has been used for decades as a mode of publicity, and that shouldn’t have to stop at live theatre broadcasts.

Admittedly, I’m still not sure where I stand in regards to the sound of rustling popcorn during a stage production (particularly when somebody spills it all over my lap half way through Hamlet’s iconic “to be, or not to be” monologue). Although it’s all very well for watching loud, Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something about eating at the theatre doesn’t seem quite right. However, if it means newcomers are dipping their toes into the world of theatre, I’ll put up with it.

This expansion in viewership is, in my opinion, doing wonders for theatre at a time often referred to as ‘dire straits’ for the arts—a sector often hit hard by government cuts. It really hit home for me when a woman sat next to me in a NT Live performance of Comedy of Errors told me she had never stepped foot into a theatre before, or when I had realised, that over half of the audiences watching Hamlet were parents with children. NT Live should be praised for its efforts in diversifying its audience, introducing them to timeless theatrical performances.

The invention of live broadcasting is pretty ingenious really, and although there are fears that it may replace the original concept of going to the theatre, I don’t think audiences will go to watch a live broadcast thinking that it is a substitute for the ‘real thing.’ I’d argue that the emotional exchange between the actor and audience sharing the same space is by no means lost; it seems quite clear onscreen that the actors are fully aware of the audience’s presence. Live broadcasting should be seen as a new experience alongside theatre, not something that is driving it towards extinction. Internationally speaking, it is both an excellent way of showcasing British talent and bringing audiences together under the newly undiscriminating banner of contemporary theatre.

Rejoice, for NT Live season is upon us! It may be getting colder, but the caliber of performing arts is heating up in the UK for the seventh season running—and there are plenty of performances in the pipeline. Get them into your diary to avoid disappointment (they sell out fast!): Jane Eyre on the 8th December; Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 28th January; As You Like It from the 25th February; and encore performances for Of Mice and Men (with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd) on the 19th November. Performances will be broadcasted from the Odeon, AMC, and HOME cinemas in Manchester over the coming months.

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