I have a confession to make. Last night I went to watch an NT Live screening of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, I loved the play but I feel like I’ve cheated on my true love. I know it’s very common to to stream theatrical events live in cinemas or as ‘encore’ performances once the production has been and gone. But I don’t like it.
Obviously I want as many people as possible to be able to go and see the best quality theatre, regardless of whether they live in London, or can afford the top tier ticket prices. However, I don’t think cinemas are the solution. Mainly because this is not going to the theatre. There is no live performance for the audience to see, it’s just a recording, and it is just a trip to the cinema.
There is an argument that it widens opportunity by letting people far away see the show. I really wanted to see this play and missed it when I had opportunities in London but now that I am based in Chester, I am far away which means this was my opportunity to see this piece. That is, unless they were to mount a tour, and now I probably won’t go. If audiences have already seen the show at the pictures, why would they pay again to go to the tour?
There are even now websites where you can download classic productions to watch at your leisure. The RSC sell a DVD of their production of Richard II staring David Tennant. Now I’m sure these are a good money spinner, but if audiences know they can catch it in the pictures, on DVD or online later might this not stop them attending theatre in the first place?
Also I fear that it encourages the idea of a definitive cast and production. Not only that but a definitive performance. Surely the joy of theatre is that the same story and characters can be told by different people in different ways from production to production and night to night. If there is also the knowledge that this performance will live on and be accessible, is there not the fear that people will perform for the cameras. Even cast to improve the DVD sales later, would there become a temptation to create a production that is camera friendly and not for the audience who are present.
I know that most productions are filmed anyway for archives, and that these are accessible if required. But that’s how I think it should be, they are there if needed for reference and as a record, but not to peruse at your leisure.
There is of course a natural instinct to want to be able to live and relive enjoyable moments. But theatre’s ephemerality is one of its great strengths. It lives, then flickers and dies. It receives a rebirth each time someone decides to tell that story again – in a different way to a different audience. This is theatre’s other great strength – it speaks immediately to groups of people who are present, in time and vicinity. When watching a theatre stream in a cinema, or anywhere else, you lose these two critical things that make theatre unique and beautiful.
To reiterate what I think is the main point, if you’re going to a cinema you are not going to a theatre. I understand the temptation, and have caved in myself but next time I’m thinking about seeing a stream, I’m going to see what’s on at the theatre and go there instead and drag my friends along too.