The play ends, the audience applauds. But the actors can’t hear the clapping — the audience is dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away. Welcome to NT Live, the National Theatre’s series of cinema broadcasts. In the three years it’s been running, the project has grown to six annual productions, with each reaching more than 60,000 people via 360 cinemas in 20 countries.
For 2009’s Phèdre, which played at the 890-seat Lyttelton Theatre, the single NT Live showing doubled the audience for its run. “As a national theatre, we have an obligation and a desire to reach as many people as possible,” says the NT’s head of digital media, David Sabel. He is eager to quash comparisons with other live filmings, such as those done by the New York Metropolitan Opera.
“Everyone has this bad idea that when you film live performances, it becomes extremely static, deadening,” he says. To counter this, the NT uses between five and eight moving cameras, adjusts the lighting and gives the actors radio mics. (For the latest production, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, there was another concession to the filming: a loincloth on the previously naked Creature.)
Having seen this play in the National’s Olivier Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch as the doctor and Jonny Lee Miller as the monster, I jumped at the chance to see the roles reversed. I’d been wondering whether the Imax screen could compare with the live experience; to my surprise, I enjoyed it more.
I had missed the subtleties of the actors’ facial expressions from the rear stalls and the performance was much better for seeing them. (Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that most actors are TV-trained these days and expansive theatre acting doesn’t come naturally.)
Sabel says mine is not an unusual reaction. “We thought it would be a second-best experience but what we found is that aesthetically it’s really worked. You can never replace the feeling of being there,” he adds, “but you get an incredible intimacy with the performers and there’s a real sense of event.”
The next NT Live is “The Cherry Orchard” on 30 June. See nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive