Is the National ready for its close up?

You could be forgiven for thinking that going to the theatre and going to the cinema are almost the same experience: in both audiences sit in a darkened room, silent, and watch people perform.

But this is not the case. Cinematic pleasure derives from close-ups, camera work, special effects. The theatre offers its liveness - you may not be able to see the tear falling from Romeo’s eye but if he coughs, laughs or forgets his lines, the audience will know about it. Perhaps it is true to say that the magic of cinema relies on its perfected form, whereas the magic of theatre is its vulnerability, the tense backstage reality that something could go hideously wrong at any moment.

With this in mind, the National Theatre’s announcement that it will broadcast four shows live to cinemas across the country begs the question will this theatrical-cinematic mongrel work and, even if it does, who will go to see it?

Yesterday, the NT’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner said “I wouldn’t know how to play safe” and admitted that he didn’t know whether the screenings would work. For Hytner seemed genuinely, and rightly, unsure of whether this is something the public wants.

The problem with putting a theatrical performance onto the big screen is that it can lack intimacy: we get neither the intimacy of knowing that the actors are only a few feet away nor the intimacy of a camera close-up. It is a noble idea to bring the National to far-flung places but if the audience can’t engage with the performers, the idea is shot.

Not that it hasn’t been done it before. The Metropolitan Opera kicked off the trend for cinematic screenings in 2006 and they proved popular. The Royal Opera House followed suit in summer 2008 and audiences could catch the macabre wooded world of Hansel und Gretel at selected cinemas over Christmas.

But opera is a different ball game: the pomp of the acting is de rigeur so loses little in translation onto the screen and the tickets are often so expensive that cinema screenings could improve the genre’s accessibility dramatically. By contrast, the National will charge £10 for cinema-goers, the same price as many of the seats to the “real thing”. There is a financial stimulus for opera audiences than doesn’t exist for theatre.

The proof will be in the pudding. If the audience feels the pudding is a million miles away with actors gesticulating wildly, they won’t come back for a second bite. Intimacy, perhaps to the detriment of that night’s theatrical performance, must headline Hytner’s newest agenda otherwise he can expect little more than a bad film.

Having watched scores of dodgy Shakespearean DVDs whilst I was at university, I sympathise with the plight of those who think they will see the genius of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart or Imogen Stubbs and get a single camera shot of a badly lit stage. It seems like the vivacity of both cinema and theatre has been drained and mixing the two has resulted in the bastardisation of both. This is what the National should fear.

Thankfully, Hytner said he intended to employ a film director for the broadcasts, hopefully giving audiences a sense of performance and melding the two forms into happier bedfellows than the 90s RSC productions I saw.

What do you think: will the NT broadcasts bring the theatre new audiences? Or will they be shunned by theatre and cinema-goers alike? And is theatre-on-film a good idea in the first place?

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