Carla van der Sluijs
A few years ago, National Theatre Live lifted the curtain on a new way to experience performances. Live screenings of popular shows beamed their way into venues up and down the country, and audiences went wild. The empty notion of ‘bringing theatre to the masses’ was finally being addressed with action! We do not need to suffer the Tube, the chuggers, and all the other unpleasantries that accompany a trip to the West End; the West End comes to us now, with no Circle Line closures to disrupt its journey. Screened performances are more financially viable too. The BBC reports that last year ticket prices rose by 5% with the average price for a seat at the West End being currently somewhere around £42.29. Suffering for your art is one thing, but it seems unfair on your overdraft that it’s expected to suffer with you. The pre-show and interval features such as rehearsal footage and interviews even make you feel as if you are getting one up on your poor counterparts who actually have to sit in the theatre. Do they know why the director decided to set ‘Hamlet’ under the sea? Possibly, but they had to spend £10 on a programme to find out. As popularity expanded, it seemed there could be no tragic flaws to this hero of modern theatre. And yet, in the excitement of the hottest West End tickets being brought to our doorsteps, the rocky transition from stage to screen is often overlooked.
Any actor will tell you that film acting and theatre acting are two very different entities. They may even go on to deliver a few speeches in both styles to demonstrate this, as professional actors can be unusual people. The change in style is because film delivers constant close-ups whilst theatre favours a more distant viewing. These close proximity shots do not reflect the scope that a theatrical performance is best witnessed from. It is worth noting that front row seats in theatres are often sold on the cheap to last-minute buyers in recognition that the seats closest to the stage do not provide the best view in the house. We also have to consider the ‘pick n choose’ element of filming theatre like this. In close-up shots, we are often left watching what the director of filming believes to be most important to the scene and where audience attention should be focused. Watching a piece of theatre is an extremely personal experience as we focus on what relates most to us individually in the performance. This ‘guided viewing’ seems to depersonalise theatre as thousands of people across the country are all focused on the same corner of the stage.
In spite of these cracks in the cinematic woodwork, I confess that I still love going to screened performances. They are not perfect, but most of the filmed productions I have seen are things I never would have watched without National Theatre Live, whether that is due to nursing my student loan or being knee-deep in coursework at the wrong end of the country. Whilst theatre does not always ‘pack the same punch’ in close-up cinematic form, this is reflected by the lower ticket prices on offer. Plus, whilst a cinema viewing cannot completely replicate a theatre one, it can offer an alternative view of a play. If Shakespeare is right that ‘one man in his time plays many parts’, maybe a production can do the same in many formats. And, most importantly, you can enjoy the show with a warm tub of buttery popcorn on your lap.
Carla van der Sluijs