James Cordon and Oliver Chris in 'One Man, Two Guvnors'. Photo: Robbie Jack / Corbis via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Does drama need the theatre to survive?

I am anticipating watching theatre from home with some trepidation

Today the National Theatre launch something that may yet change theatregoing as we know it. They are presenting the grandly titled National Theatre Live At Home, which will consist of a weekly screening of a past play that the National has staged, free to watch for everyone and available on YouTube for a week. The season commences with Nicholas Hytner’s staging of One Man, Two Guvnors, and will be followed by productions of Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night. Given that the NT has announced that it will be closed until at least June 30, it is likely that this will continue for many months to come, and there is eager speculation as to what from their library will be shown next. Frankenstein? Angels in America? Fleabag?

The National Theatre Live initiative has been one of the most successful developments in theatregoing in recent times, at least from a commercial perspective. Hytner launched it in June 2009 with a production of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, which was screened live from satellite into 70 cinemas. It was a success, and so many of the National’s most high-profile productions were available in cinemas from then on. Over the course of 2013 and 2014, for instance, one could have enjoyed Sam Mendes’ King Lear with Simon Russell Beale as Lear, The Magistrate with John Lithgow and the political drama This House.

Other theatres in both the subsidised and for-profit sectors soon cottoned onto the commercial potential that live screenings of shows had. A premium ticket price could be charged, less than a theatre ticket would cost but considerably more than the average cinema admission would be, and it was swiftly realised that there was a sufficiently large audience for these productions to be able to stage so-called ‘Encore’ screenings. At these the same price was charged for, essentially, the privilege of watching a theatrical performance in a cinema screened off a DVD. Those who attended generally did not mind that the thrill of watching live theatre had been removed; instead, they were pleased to see a high-end production of a great play with major actors at their local cinema at a fraction of the price that a trip to London would cost.

So it has gone over for over a decade. The eleventh season was to have featured screenings of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt and the National’s updating of The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether these will now be staged at all, let alone filmed during a live performance for broadcast. This will be hugely disappointing for many, not least the cinema and theatre operators for whom this would have been an extremely lucrative opportunity. Yet at a time when everyone is making sacrifices, this would seem to be one of the more survivable ones.

It is not only the National offering filmed theatrical experiences at home. The Hampstead Theatre and the Globe are doing a similar service, and the RSC, never to be outdone in innovation by their London rival, are broadcasting some of their recent shows on BBC4, including Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth and Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet. There will even be a chance to watch the fin-de-siècle themed 2017 staging of Twelfth Night, with Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio, thanks to the online streaming platform Marquee TV. In fact, drama lovers who are currently starved of the theatrical experience will probably never have been faced with such a plethora of plays to enjoy at home.

There are two downsides to this munificence. The first is that the NT Live platform has been a hugely lucrative one at least in part on the grounds that there is no other way of seeing its productions. This democratisation now means that it will be impractical for cinemas who fancy making a bit of money on a wet Wednesday evening in February to offer an Encore performance of One Man, Two Guvnors or Twelfth Night: the audience will either have taken the opportunity to see the plays while in enforced lockdown in their homes, or will be able to find a salvaged version of them without any particular trouble. And the second, and far greater, problem is that there remains something fundamentally alien, for many, about watching drama in any other arena than a theatre.

I didn’t go and see Phèdre when it was broadcast, but my local cinema had the second NT Live screening, of All’s Well That Ends Well, in October 2009. I went along with high expectations. Hytner had talked enthusiastically about how the productions had been reconfigured for the cinema audiences, and how the overall experience would be visceral and transporting – ‘just as good as being there’, he said. In fact, it was a strange and rather embarrassing evening. My fellow patrons seemed as unsure how to behave as I was – should they laugh appreciatively to show that they understand the jokes and allusions? Applaud at the halfway point and at the end? And close-up, a lot of the acting seemed horribly coarse and mannered, with the performances geared to the back of the circle rather to the camera. I left halfway through, which I would not have done at the National, but I could not bear it any longer.

While I am looking forward to seeing the productions of various plays, it is with some trepidation

Subsequently, the only time I have ventured to a NT Live screening was in 2011 to see Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Frankenstein and The Creature. This was a better experience, thanks to the brilliance of Cumberbatch and Lee Miller’s performances, but it was still frustrating. The production attracted a great deal of attention for its wordless opening, scored by the dance band Underworld, in which the Creature comes to life. On stage, it must have been a charged and hugely effective coup de théâtre, but watched in a cinema it seemed self-indulgent and interminably long. And, again, the acting in the supporting roles had a broadness to it that would not have seemed unnatural halfway down the stalls, but on screen had an exaggeration that made me understand why the word ‘theatrical’ is so often used as an insult.

Therefore, while I am looking forward to seeing the productions of various plays, it is with some trepidation. Having watched, and loved, the original production of One Man, Two Guvnors, I can’t imagine how its clever sense that the entire thing was one James Corden improvisation away from complete chaos could even begin to work at a remove. (Perhaps this explains why it hasn’t been filmed.) The audience participation, real and faked, was a huge part of its appeal, but seen out of context, I wonder if it will seem as self-indulgent and artificial as the banter that Corden indulges in with his famous guests on Carpool Karaoke and The Late Late Show.

Set against this, I am extremely glad that so many of the best drama of the past decade have been preserved, both for cinemagoers and for future generations, which has been the case regrettably seldom before. It is hard to explain to anyone under 50 why Laurence Olivier, for instance, was considered such an astonishing actor based on his cinema work alone, which had a pronounced tendency to overstatement. Yet if one watches the filmed 1963 Chichester Festival Theatre production of Uncle Vanya, in which Michael Redgrave played Vanya and Olivier played Astrov, one can see why he was widely believed to be the greatest theatrical performer of the 20th century. It is an astonishingly rich and vivid interpretation of the part, and is easily the equal of anything that has come since.

However, records of performances like this are rare, due to the expense and difficulty of capturing them. There was a brief phase of offering semi-staged recreations of famous productions before the National Theatre Live initiative, such as Rupert Goold’s great Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as the Thane, and David Tennant as the Dane in Hamlet, but these often had a fustiness at odds with the electrifying immediacy of the performances in live theatre. Any director faces this dilemma: how does one stage drama of this kind without the physical stage and audience?

There may now be playwrights who have ideas as to how to bring drama to life in new and unconventional ways, with this extended closure of the theatres – the most significant since the 17th century – bringing about invention through adversity. And there is precedent already. James Graham, the contemporary wunderkind who moves between theatre and television with ease, wrote a play, The Vote, which was set in a polling station on the night of the 2015 General Election. On 7 May 2015, it made history by being broadcast from the Donmar Warehouse at exactly the same time as it was set, climaxing with the revelation of the exit poll: not entirely what many of its audience or creative team would have hoped for.

This interactivity may well be the future of drama in the post-coronavirus 21st century. When one no longer has a physical theatre, playwrights and directors have to think differently as to how they want to present their shows. There has always been drama that has been staged in unusual settings – one thinks of Punchdrunk and of promenade shows and fringe theatre that have used the most unlikely of spaces – but this is an opportunity to use the intimate yet distancing social technology of Zoom, HouseParty and FaceTime in ways that no playwright has yet explored, to bring a visceral connection between actors, writers and audiences about. There have been hints of this before – an episode of Inside No 9, which was purportedly staged as live, attracted attention for sending a plot-specific tweet in real time, and the Russell T Davies dystopian drama Years and Years contained a reference to that day’s news during its initial broadcast in a clever bit of last-minute post-production trickery – but now is the time for something truly groundbreaking.

The National’s artistic director Rufus Norris has weathered occasional criticisms of his regime – including some from The Critic – with good grace, insisting that the NT is staging ‘relevant’ shows that say something about the world that we inhabit. Yet with the theatres closed and the opportunity for audiences to congregate together temporarily removed from us, it will be bold practitioners who can assess how successful the domestic viewings of the National Theatre, Globe and RSC productions are, and then think about making something bespoke for a hungry and erudite audience.

If they succeed, not only will it result in something thrilling and innovative, but it might even reset the whole question of what ‘theatre’ itself is, if one can find inventive live drama in one’s living room or even on one’s telephone. Whatever happens will be, I hope, a triumphant and democratic effort. As Malvolio said, some achieve greatness, some are born great, and some have it thrust upon them. This is not a thrust that anyone would have wished for, but if a new sort of work can emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of society, then at least the current dire situation that we are in cannot be said to be a total waste of our time and effort.

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