It seems that once again the National Theatre is well on its way to revolutionising the way in which audiences view theatre. The first season of NT Live concluded yesterday with London Assurance and did not fail to entertain. Dion Boucicault’s play is human and touching, but above all a good laugh. This being my second viewing of the play, I feel that I have some justification for comparing and contrasting the two. NT Live is not theatre. Nor is it cinema. It has the potential to be a new form of art which takes the best aspects from each and mixes them together to form a very entertaining evening.
Walking into the cinema, we feel a real sense of spectacle. Already a circus act is performing on the outdoor stage at the National Theatre and we are able to watch to watch them live, chatting amongst ourselves and getting ready for the main event. An audience is gathered on the lawn on the Southbank and somehow we feel a connection with them. Everyone is watching the same thing and everyone knows that elsewhere a further 150’000 people are doing exactly the same thing. This is something that strikes me about NT Live; we get a real sense of event and spectacle. The audience all over the world is part of something special and it is this intimacy and immediacy which allows us to understand we are watching theatre. Anything could happen and we will all be witness to it.
What NT Live has that theatre doesn’t, however, is the ability to see the actors’ faces in glorious HD, 20 feet high on the screen. We can see every bead of sweat and flicker of the eye – something that isn’t possible when sitting in the back row of the Olivier. It does sometimes, however, feel that we may be losing out, for only having one camera on one actor means we miss the reactions of other members of the ensemble. Having these close-ups also mean that some jokes are completely lost. When a rat comes gliding across the stage in London Assurance, for example, all we see is the reaction of Sir Harcourt Courtly and we are unable to understand why his mouth is agape and the audience in the Olivier is laughing joyously. A fleeting glimpse of the rat is seen but the joke is over by then. It is a shame that such visual gags should be lost when we have that most visual of mediums on hand; cinema.
Whilst I understand that this is a live transmission of a play and not a film for cinema, it often felt that we were getting the raw end of the deal. All the camera angles were the same, meaning there was no variety in picture. It would be useful, perhaps, to have a roaming cameraman on stage to catch intimate moments and shrewd asides. The use of direct address should also be looked at. Every time characters addressed the audience it was to the live congregation and not the 150’000 watching around the world. Occasionally, when actors looked down the lens of the camera for fleeting moments, we felt an immediate connection with them and longed for more. Of course, this has probably been trialed already by the National Theatre but it would be interesting to see the difference it would make.
I also wonder what the etiquette is for these sort of transmissions. When watching a film, we may laugh quietly to ourselves and share tearful moments with our friends. At the theatre, the audience is one being, laughing and crying together and not afraid to express how they feel about the performance. In Milton Keynes, where I viewed the play, the audience seemed to be split down the middle. Some were happy to keep themselves to themselves and indulge in the occasional chuckle whilst others (including myself) were not afraid to laugh heartily away and let ourselves believe we were in a theatre. Of course, learning how best to behave at an NT Live transmission will come in time, but in the meantime I assume there will be a few more awkward moments in dingy cinemas the world over.
It is that final point which excites most about NT Live. A new platform has been created for audiences all across the globe and we could see this working as an entirely new art form in itself. We cannot see our fellow audience members, but we know they are there, enjoying the same moment as we are. Those in the unfortunate position of not being able to see National Theatre productions now have the ability to view the brilliance of Nick Hytner and his team. So much more can be done with this form, and I’m sure in time those avenues will be explored. For now, however, I am more than content with being able to watch some of the greatest actors in the world on the big screen and at a cheap price. I, for one, can’t wait until next time.