NT:Live and Kicking

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at Devoted and Disgruntled last month was a provocation by Tassos Stevens of Coney: “Can technology in theatre ever be playful?” Inevitably, National Theatre Live came up, but the focus was slightly different to the usual debates about streamed theatre’s effect on the theatrical ecology. Instead, we spoke about its effect on an audience and the way in which it effects the theatrical experience.

All of these thoughts were bubbling through my head when I sat down to watch the Donmar’s Coriolanus at my local theatre last week. It was my eighth NT:Live experience, only three of those visits had been to streams of productions I hadn’t yet seen (I find the live streams are an excellent opportunity to take along a few mates to a great show for which tickets are hard to find). Throughout, I couldn’t help thinking about how the very nature of the live streaming was changing my experience.

First it’s worth noting that I’m actually pretty much completely in support of the live streaming of theatre, whether to audiences in cinemas or individuals at home. The positives have been well-documented, and generally I agree with them; it has the potential to expand an audience, aid easy access to theatre, etc. Similarly, the nature of the showing themselves can be extremely positive, giving us a “front row seat” on the action, allowing us deep into the actors’ psychology through high-definition, cinematic images. Live editing and multiple cameras allow us to see things we wouldn’t see in the theatre.

But. But. There are a number of things which problematise the experience.

First, I’d like to address that ‘quality’ thing, which seems to be one of the main selling points of the streams. Whilst it’s true that we can see the actors better and it’s often easier to catch what they’re saying, the quality of image and sound is extremely different to that in the theatre, cinema and even live TV. The picture has a grain on it which betrays the ‘liveness’ of the thing, but which doesn’t quite put it up in the realms of actual cinema. As pretty much anyone who works in lighting design will tell you, there’s a huge difference between lighting up a stage and lighting up a film set, and that – I think – helps to explain the slightly alien quality of image we get during an NT:Live stream. It’s even more obvious in the sound, which captures (via a radio microphone) the voice of an actor speaking in a space designed to enhance sound, creating in the process a noise quality which again lies somewhere between theatre and cinema, with a faint echo but crystal clear definition.

Then there’s the lack of ‘choice’. In a theatre, if you so desire, you can look at a wall even as Hamlet delivers a soliloquy, or inspect the grain on a cupboard as Jimmy Porter rants. Not so much in a live stream. Yeah, okay, you can focus on a guard who’s slightly out-of-focus in the background if you want, but most of the choice afforded by actually being there is stripped away from you. Some theatre is, arguably, only effective if you shift focus regularly, allowing you to take in little details that no one else may see, finding your own journey through the image created in front of you. I remember seeing video clips of Three Kingdoms which took in the whole stage picture, and then would be really pissed off when the camera focussed in on one actor; “but I want to see what’s going on over there,” you think (I just want to pause for a second to imagine a world where Three Kingdoms was live-streamed to hundreds of little local cinemas around the UK… Okay, done). So what we may gain in ‘quality’ in NT:Live is taken away from us in terms of choice of focus. One of my favourite moments during the Coriolanus live stream occurred when a camera at a low angle allowed us to soak in a simple, gorgeous image of the whole stage. This choice is completely understandable – if the streams used static camera angles, they’d look like recordings of school shows and we’d lose the dynamism they currently have – but there is no doubt that something is lost in this form.

Linked to this is the importance of metaphor in theatre. When we look at a set, whether it be the cross section of a house or a sparse white box, we recognise that it stands in for something other – or bigger – than itself. Water can become blood and a teddy bear can become a brown bear. Imagination is everything. The importance of metaphor and illusion shifts, however, when those images are translated to a screen. That’s not to say that we as an audience don’t apply the same levels of interpretation, merely that the translation onto screen alters our perception of the whole and thus lessens the importance of metaphor. The importance of spoken word and emotion is raised whilst the stage picture created by designer and director is backgrounded. Perhaps that’s one reason why live streaming has already become so popular in the UK; it feeds into our theatre’s adherence to the written text.

Space, too, is integral to the theatrical experience. Every production is in some kind of dialogue with its venue, no matter how simple or unidentified. The experience of seeing a show is inextricably bound up with the history, configuration and make-up of the venue; an Olivier show might make us think about a bigger picture, whilst a decaying music hall could evoke feelings of nostalgia. A National Theatre Live screening, however, is a kind of venue-within-a-venue, as the dynamics of the cinema space seep into the experience of watching a show which is occurring in a theatre space. How do the ingrained, cultural expectations of each space impact upon one another?

Perhaps the main difference between watching theatre in the space for which it was made and experiencing it on a screen, however, is a shift in contract between actor and audience. Generally, theatre audiences enter a tacit agreement with the performers that they will sit in relative quiet and allow events on stage to play out provided what is presented appeals to them. There’s always the possibility, however, that someone could, if they wanted to, stand up, shout out, or generally change the course of events. It’s unlikely, of course, but the possibility is always there, creating a palpable and constant tension. During a live stream, only the audience members in the theatre itself contribute to this tension, whilst for the rest of us around the world, tension is created only by the question of how well the stream will work. The difference in tension, then, is the difference between how we interact with humans and how we interact with technology. In a theatre, there is the possibility that audience and actor can be equals; in a cinema, we become voyeurs with the privilege afforded by a Foucauldian panopticism.

That notion of privilege is an interesting one, because though the cinema audiences get a sharper, closer view of the action, we know that our experience isn’t nearly as good as being in the theatre itself. Those actually in the room, then, are the selected few (albeit with cameras in the way), and are separate from the mass audience watching a screen. Also on that theme of privilege, I finish with a question (thanks to a friend for bringing this one up). In a run of several months, what impact – direct or indirect – does a singular live streaming viewed by tens of thousands have on the subsequent recorded and remembered life of the show? As the majority of people who saw any given show becomes its cinema audience, how will this change our perceptions of liveness and the temporality of theatre? The answer is up for grabs, but there’s no doubt our relationship to the live will have to be reconfigured as these screenings become more and more pervasive.

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