Could cinema be the best thing that ever happened to theatre?
If you told someone twenty years ago that you’d one day be able to drive to a retail park on the Isle of Thanet and see one of the most critically-acclaimed performances of Hamlet in history, in a cinema, live from London, you’d likely be laughed at all the way to the theatre. This very production of the iconic Shakespeare play, broadcast live from the Barbican by the National Theatre, broke the record for live screening audiences on Thursday when it drew in 225,000 people in cinemas around the world.
I was one of those near quarter-million, sat in the same cinema I’d been to see Kray twins biopic Legend in a few weeks earlier. Now, I was experiencing quite possibly the greatest piece of theatre I’d ever seen, but what I was watching was more a film than a play.
This was one of the reasons it was so captivating. Here, I wasn’t watching a group of players (in this case, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hynes and Jim “Bishop Brennan” Norton, to name a few) acting miles away on a stage, but rather I was able to experience the much-lauded National Theatre performance about the troubled Danish prince as a wholly cinematic affair, without having to compromise the inherent live appeal of the theatre. Some of the cinematography, coupled with the play’s rather noteworthy production, was enough to send shivers down the spine at times. The raw power of the actors, and the tragic tale of Hamlet, was captured on the camera better than the naked eye could ever manage.
It made me realise, that for so long these two mediums which gazed covetously upon each other – film and theatre – were now becoming one thanks to institutions like National Theatre Live. Where cinema used to threaten the livelihood of the stage, it now supports it, not just in providing a sizeable boost in audience numbers (I don’t think you can quite fit a quarter of a million people in the Barbican), but in providing accessibility to people who otherwise would not be able to experience what people have been seeing at the Barbican since the 5th of August.
It cost me £15 to see Hamlet, and all I had to do was bundle in a car and drive half an hour across Kent. Had I been going to see it in its more traditional form on-stage at the Barbican, it would have cost me upward of £120, not to mention the time-cost and resultant faff. Admittedly it should have actually cost £18 but with my youthful good looks I managed to blag a teen ticket; one of the perks of being 21 and looking like a 16 year old.
The convenience of theatre screenings is all well and good but the main point, however, is that NT Live – and similar enterprises such as RSC Live – open people up to the world of theatre, particular the works of Shakespeare. For those who might not be so inclined to trek all the way to London and pay the above-mentioned price to endure dark hours of MacBeth, or be so die-hard as to travel to Stratford and watch the entire Plantagenet histories cycle back-to-back, you can see world-class theatre for only slightly greater the cost of your average trip to the cinema, without all the expensive frills attached.
When I went on Thursday I was joined by my brother and sister-in-law, who had never seen a live performance of Shakespeare in their lives. Moreover the latter, my sister-in-law, had only ever seen one non-musical play before – Jeeves and Wooster, which was somehow ample to convince her to go and make the jump into one of the most tragic of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Jeeves and Wooster was altogether a much more light-hearted affair, I’ll say, but nevertheless they and doubtless everyone else in our screen at our Vue were so enthralled by Hamlet that it shan’t be the only live theatre screening they see. During the interval, a couple of elderly Shakespeare aficionados sat to my right said that NT Live is “the best thing that ever happened in entertainment”.
At its core, seeing a cinematic, live broadcast of a play is a great deal more immersive. A study a few years ago revealed that audiences viewing a live screening of a play were far more likely to engage with the performance than those sat in the theatre. Witnessing Thursday’s Hamlet is testament to that.
“One of the most intriguing results from the National’s NT Live screenings is that, despite lower expectations, cinema audiences reported higher levels of emotional engagement with the production than theatre audiences.”
Sure, you can never quite beat seeing the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear or David Tennant on stage in person, but you’re so much more drawn-in to the story when you have an added cinematic layer place over the top of the performance. It’s like a theatre sandwich: the stage and the screen is the bread; the performance is the filling. We all know what it’s like trying to eat a half-assembled sandwich; it just isn’t as powerful a narrative experience, and that was an awful analogy.