Sure, watching theatre online is great, especially at the moment, but how can it ever compare to the real thing? After watching and thoroughly enjoying some, Violet Mackintosh ponders over the pros and cons and what the future for theatre may hold.

After watching One Man, Two Guvnors, the first in the National Theatre at Home ‘lockdown’ series, my mood was instantly lifted. It really did feel like being at the theatre, wine glass in hand, knowing that thousands of others were laughing at the same jokes and that we were all somehow united. So many theatres are now making their productions available online, but should we be watching theatre through a camera? Is this truly the direction we want art to go when all of this is finally over? There is no doubt that a recording of a live show is not a replacement for being there in the flesh, so does this mean we are dealing with half-hearted theatre?

We are all struggling to adjust to this new normal and attempting to uncover joy where we can, and I have certainly found comfort in online theatre. It is uplifting to observe all the ways in which content is still being put out there and with new projects launching every day, it’s initiatives like these that are going to be so important for us, cooped up inside. Nothing can ever replace the smell of old seats and new perfume, of dodgy smoke machines and over-priced programmes, but in striving to keep art going, we will emerge at the other end with some extraordinary stories to tell.

Let’s leave the global pandemic aside and talk some more about NT Live as a general concept. The NT Live scheme was set up to enable more people to access the National Theatre’s first-rate productions without having to journey up to London, pay for expensive tickets and cope with the general kerfuffle – it was ground-breaking at the time. The first performance – a production of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren, was watched by around 50,000 cinema audiences in 2009, both in the UK and around the world. To put this into perspective, the number of viewers watching an NT Live broadcast on a single day nowadays reaches about the same amount of people as one five-week run in the Olivier.

Numbers are obviously important but is quantity threatening to overrule quality? There has been controversy here, with some arguing that filming for a cinema audience is not the point of theatre.

One of the reasons NT Live has been so popular over the last decade is because it combats the elitist nature of theatre. The cinema, especially a local and familiar one, can be more inviting to audiences than the often-stressful situations we find ourselves in at the theatre. At the cinema there’s no sense of being in the ‘cheap seats’, with the whole audience on a level playing field and you’re able to munch popcorn without getting death stares (but not too loudly). As for ticket prices, NT Live isn’t exactly cheap, but it is certainly cheaper than a non-restricted view ticket at the theatre itself.

Back in 2014, Playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn argued that theatregoers “will have a second-hand experience” if they were to watch theatre through a camera. If the art form is not at all designed for the medium through which you are witnessing it, what are you paying for? You are watching theatre, not experiencing it – there is a difference and once directors start taking camera angles into account during rehearsals, everyone suffers.  We should still direct shows for the stage, with the most important audience still being the one in the room with you. This, however, should not prevent others from benefitting from the work that has gone into the production. In the end, the purpose is to bring people together, and something like NT Live is doing that. This alone makes the whole enterprise a success.

Another factor to consider is the filming. If we want to present cinema audiences with the best possible version of the show, the filming can hardly be a subtle undertaking. It cannot simply be a matter of just recording the show, it must be conducted professionally, with reviewed camera angles, and the film crew should have seen the production beforehand (otherwise the camera might be as shocked as you are that the action is suddenly stage right). A process on this scale is off-putting for actors and audiences alike, distracting from the atmosphere of intimacy so unique to the theatre. One of my favourite parts of a show is choosing what or whom to watch. With my stage manager‘s hat on, I often appreciate the props, quick changes or little nuisances on the set that my companions miss. This is not as easy with NT Live as the camera makes the choice, usually focusing on the main action.

Whether it is a case of filmed theatre productions appealing to us or not, I think it is hard to argue that we should forever restrict theatre to a straight live experience – that’s not progress and ideally it needs to adapt to an era where streaming services still reign supreme. If the spheres of filmed and live performance weren’t already going head to head, now they certainly are contending for our lockdown screen time. I am by no means suggesting that theatre should become just like any other TV series, as there is still something singular about a stage, actors and limited special effects, but some sort of change is necessary. Given the current climate it seems as though the shift we’re living through will happen more quickly than anyone predicted. There should be some element of occasion to a theatrical experience, but still being able to have access to some of the best productions of the recent past during these dark times has been terrific. It has certainly kept me from slipping into lockdown insanity. I think David Sabel (Head of Digital, National Theatre when NT Live first started) summed this up nicely when he said “We’ve always seen NT Live as a complement to the live experience, not a replacement”.  Nothing will ever replace the feeling of being packed into a crowded room of strangers to witness the beauty of theatre together, though who knows when we will feel that again. In the meantime, we are still able to get our daily dose of theatre with so many wonderful productions now available online and not just courtesy of the National.