Before 2006, the idea of watching a play or an opera from the discomfort of a cinema seat, with the scent of popcorn, nachos and hotdogs wafting through the air, would have been ludicrous. But New York’s Met Opera’s broadcast of a live performance of The Magic Flute to cinemas changed that. Arts institutions the world over, from Glyndebourne to the Bolshoi Ballet, started to copy the Met and soon cinemagoers were pouring out of multiplexes, amazed at the intimacy and immediacy of these screenings.
The amalgamation of live performance and cinema sounded, to my ears at least, to be a terrible idea. When I finally took the decision last year to subject myself to a broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, I was confident that my knee-jerk prejudice would be confirmed. I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would recommend it, even if getting a ticket might prove easier said than done.
The demand for these screenings has been huge, with The Met’s 2010–11 Live in HD season going out to 1,500 cinemas in 46 countries and National Theatre Live visiting 700 cinemas in 22 countries to date.
Simon Russell Beale has so far appeared in two National Theatre Live performances, London Assurance and Collaborators, and, like me, he was initially sceptical about how the broadcasts would be executed. Now he’s a convert and believes one of the key reasons that the screenings have been such a hit is that they have become special occasions for all those involved.
‘When I perform in a live broadcast I get the sense that it is quite a one-off occasion, and that means the response from the audience in the theatre has been very good and that dynamic goes through the cast as well,’ he says. ‘At the interval of London Assurance, Deborah Warner, the director, texted to say it was going down well in Oxford and afterwards you see emails saying that it had been well received in New York and that’s an amazing feeling. There was also an audience watching London Assurance on a screen outside the theatre so we went out and did a curtain call for them, and there was the feeling that it was a real event.’
The kind of hi-tech wizardry brought to bear on these productions is impressive both in its scale and execution. There are often live interviews with cast and crew members before and after performances, and cameras swoop in on the action from all angles. Russell Beale insists that the technology, in his experience, has not had a detrimental effect on performances. ‘When I did Collaborators, it was a bit of technical virtuosity on the part of the camera crew because the show was in the round and I was completely unaware of the cameras as I was performing,’ he says.
At a time of double-dip recession, arts venues must find ever more novel ways of reaching their audiences and it seems that live broadcasts are doing just that. This year cinemagoers have screenings of performances from The Met, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Royal Opera House to look forward to, as well as more from the National, including Russell Beale in Timon of Athens next November.
‘The National is doing well in terms of its audience numbers, so they could just sit on their own triumph here in London but they think it is very important for people to see their work and it is a national theatre after all,’ he says.
Despite Russell Beale’s, the public’s and my own enthusiasm for this hybrid art form one doubt remains in my mind. It is a worry, particularly in the case of the screening programmes run by British venues such as the National, that the prospect of watching stars such as Russell Beale and Benedict Cumberbatch might lure audiences away from supporting their local theatres.
With the biggest institutions continuing to receive the majority of a small amount of arts funding, a further blow to small venues and companies could have potentially disastrous consequences. And if that’s the case it won’t just be the popcorn that stinks.