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Like many theatre critics and, well theatre viewers generally, Matt Barton has been on quite the journey with the shift to the digital sphere. Here, he reflects on its pros and cons.

Opening a link and clicking play might not be the usual start to a piece of theatre, but it has been for the past year. Unable to sit in big dark rooms together, we’ve sat in living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens watching theatre through screens. These are only some of the differences in experiencing digital theatre — that currently ubiquitous oxymoron, like ‘liquid books’ or ‘printed TV’.

I’ve done more thinking about what digital theatre is than enjoying watching it. It’s a common view that theatre is unique because of the connection unmediated by any screen, but that’s exactly what theatremakers turned to as they searched for a stopgap. Beginning with the weekly National Theatre at Home instalments, way back in April last year, there’s been a sense of drawing on reserves and recycling, rather than finding ways to create.

This endeavour to maintain some momentum was commendable, but many industry figures like Simon Stephens have argued we actually don’t need to keep the production line rolling. Yes, digital theatre has emerged as a necessary compromise and has endured from this functional, pragmatic approach (not that it would’ve been a reasonable expectation at the start), but it’s rarely focused on cultivating artistic innovation and only recently has it seen a clearer drive towards ‘experiments’ like the RSC’s Dream.

So, while it was welcomed due to the relief and excitement of still being able to see something at all, it’s never quite established itself beyond that as a form. In fact, it’s often seemed far from theatre. It’s felt unshakably counterintuitive and off-putting when cameras and technical interfaces get in the way of people, faces and bodies. Directors like Jamie Lloyd have described their job as getting out of the way of the actors and audience, but this organic interplay has often been obstructed by the artificial film construction.

In other pieces, a digital concept has taken precedence over theatrical storytelling. Ironically when ThickSkin’s Petrichor tried to be more immersive using VR, the headset and technical intricacies counterproductively undermined this effort. Similarly, the camera’s role has often been to direct our attention, rather than let us freely, spontaneously track reactions, reverberations, and aftershocks as the impact of a line ricochets across the characters. The enjoyment is in a piece of theatre showcasing these performances rather than clever camerawork.

This intrusive presence is one of the ways this more televisual medium has diverged from theatre. Consequently, performances have honed in on a single camera, rather than exploring the expanse of a stage. It also feels less live and immediate. The filmed version of the Almeida’s Albion lost some of the rich atmosphere of the garden setting with its earth, soil and plants cycling through growth and decay like the seasons. Digital recordings also lose the intensity and prickly tension in the way looks, lines and slights can almost affect the climate and temperature of the room.

There’s an argument that it’s futile comparing the live and digital forms because they’re not meant or expected to be the same. Like the lighter version of your favourite chocolate bar, you accept its shortcomings and try to savour the attenuated essence. So, what’s it brought the form artistically? When it’s worked best, it’s reminded us what we’re missing. The Old Vic’s season of monologues exemplified the craft of speech and how it can transcend the physical boundaries imposed by filming. Stripped back, they let actors like Andrew Scott perform linguistic dances of memory, imagination and metaphor escaping the concrete, literal televisual language.

It’s benefited theatre more widely, too. Faster production times have enabled more reactive commentary, such as satirising the government’s retraining propaganda in the Southwark Playhouse’s The Poltergeist. It’s also significantly widened accessibility for international audiences or those who can’t travel to the venue. On one night you could watch Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s radical reinventions of classics like Medea, or on another, be mesmerised by the defiance and compassion of the Hope Mill’s Rent revival.

This sense of democratising theatre to wider audiences is set to last with the Lyric Hammersmith’s plans to both live-stream and perform Out West in person. As good as this is in breaking down barriers to access, digital theatre hasn’t managed to recreate the lack of barriers in the experience itself. It still facilitates a connection, which I’m not suggesting you can’t feel in TV or film, but you don’t watch theatre to watch TV or film.

It’s this intimacy and these artistic values which should be channelled, grown, and experimented with and the interest should be in innovating our current form instead of the temptation to explore a new, untapped one. Hopefully, what began as a necessary distraction doesn’t itself prove a distraction from the real essence of theatre and what began as a means of helping theatre survive doesn’t lead to its loss or dilution.