Is it theatre? Is it cinema? No! It’s NT:Live

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.

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3 thoughts on “Is it theatre? Is it cinema? No! It’s NT:Live”

  1. An interesting review, and I’m looking forward to seeing some NTLive productions next season as I can never get to London often enough to see everything I want to.

    I don’t think the audience within the NT would have appreciated a camera operator roaming the stage – it would certainly have annoyed me – and now I think about it, I wonder if the (in-house) audience / actor relationship was altered by the presence of cameras. I assume they were unobtrusive, but had I been there and realised that an actor was talking directly into a camera rather than directly to another audience member, something would have jarred. My fingers keep wanting to type metatheatrical, but that’s the wrong word. I shall go away and make one up.

    As I don’t go to the cinema, I wasn’t aware that the etiquette was particularly different, but I do wonder if one of those very rare events happen – not so much something going wrong but something quirky happening where even the actors acknowledge it and the audience spontaneously applauds – would the audiences in the cinema also applaud, or despite their hybrid nature are they aware that they’re not sharing the same living and breathing space as the actors?

    1. Anna,
      I understand what you mean about the camera operators but if the majority of audience members are watching from outside the theatre then I believe another camera may be useful. Again, I know that it is simply relaying the feel of theatre but I feel an extra camera would make the event slightly more immersive. Like you, I would be interested to hear from in-house audiences about their views about the cameras.

      I must admit that I felt the need to applaud at the end. Obviously, this lacks the spontaneity of applauding in a theatre and is largely pointless, but a few quiet claps could be heard from the cinema auditorium. Again, it would be interesting to hear about the experiences of others. Nevertheless, many thanks for your comment.

  2. I too had seen the show before, and was seated a few rows behind the cameras – 2 fixed in the centre and two on rails (@NTLive posted pics of the camera layout the day before).

    Fortunately my view wasn’t blocked by the cameras although people next to me saw less. However there were small monitors on the pros so you could see what was going out.

    IMHO missing the rat (both times!) and the falling trophies when the blunderbus was fired were missed opportunities as Dan says. These could have been covered I’m sure by the cameras that tracked – I was watching the operators follow their shooting scripts and it seemed to me they could have got more setups. It didn’t need another camera on stage.

    I did find a blog online (BBA?) where the Producer seemed to indicate that he has ‘developed a style that doesn’t attempt to follow cinematic conventions’ – presumably where there might have been more close-ups.

    But all in all it looked to me as if the shots that went out where pretty close to perfect given the lack of camera rehearsals which you can sense if you look at the timestamps of the tweets by @NTLive.

    My significant complaint, and I speak as a ‘fanboy’ recently bruised by participation in the early weeks of #suchtweet upto the night of the product placements (shame on the RSC), was that this global event needed a formal hashtag, announced in advance and used by most tweeters so that everyone could keep in touch in real-time.

    I’m also unsure whether Emma’s request to actually turn phones off was truly necessary? I would have liked to tweet through the acts. But it was still nice to pick up responses in the interval and after the curtain.

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