When the National launched the pilot scheme of its NT Live initiative last June - which borrows the idea originated by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to broadcast specific live performances into cinemas around the country and indeed the world, thus reaching a potentially global audience - there are those of us who wondered whether it would, in fact, be possible to recreate the theatrical experience in another place.
The joy of theatre, after all, is its apparent exclusivity: it is only happening right here right now in the room that you are sharing with tonight’s other spectators. It is unique and no two performances are ever completely the same. But can that unique performance ever reach a wider audience than those watching it tonight? And should it even try?
Last night, I finally saw for myself just how it works, when I went to see London Assurance again - but not at the National’s Olivier, but at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair. When I saw the opening night, I’d given it a five star rave in the Sunday Express, calling it “the funniest and most assured comedy in all of London”. So here was the ultimate test: would the laughs survive if watching it in another room?
In fact, the play not only survives - it thrives. We’ve become spoilt by studio theatres to get a much closer-up experience of actors and acting than you do from the back of the balcony of some of our older theatrical houses; or indeed from the back or sides of the Olivier circle. Here, the cameras ensure not only that we get front row centre seats - but also the high-definition transmission gives us the actors in sizes larger than life.
That’s appropriate, of course, for this wild - and wildly funny - portrait of larger-than-life characters like Lady Gay Spanker and Sir Harcourt Courtly, played with a kind of theatrical vivacity by Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale respectively that even a stage as large as the Olivier’s can’t fully accommodate. But hurtling across an even bigger screen, they fill the cinema with their presence. This is theatrical acting, not cinematic acting, to be sure, so there’s a certain staginess to it, but the self-evident pleasure they are having in their roles in truly contagious.
In fact, its clear that since the show opened this has become an intricately-timed ensemble treasure, and everyone was having a ball. And so, it seemed, was the audience at the Curzon; there’s something about the sound of shared laughter that is also part of the pleasure of great comedy. One caveat, though: the sound, certainly at the Curzon, was way too loud - thus threatening to drown out the sound of our own laughter.
But the NT Live scheme has been an astounding success - according to a press release issued yesterday, the first set of productions reached over 150,000 people on 320 screens in 22 countries. And last night, there was one more screen outside the National itself: whereas I’d paid £10 for my comfy seat at the Curzon, I could have sat on the fake lawn outside the National for free, where the actors even came out to take a curtain call at the end of the evening last night, too!
So the scheme is making a sold out production available not just to people all around the country and world, it is democratising what happens inside the building for those just outside it, too. This is a vote and funding winner all the way. No wonder that the National have now announced a second season, which will comprise the still-to-come productions of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, the import from Broadway of Fela!, Danny Boyle’s return to theatre directing with Frankenstein and a new Howard Davies production of The Cherry Orchard starring Zoe Wanamaker, plus Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, of which Nick Hytner told Emma Freud in a live pre-show interview on the NT terraces that he wanted NT Live to also act as an “umbrella for the best of British theatre”.
Clearly the scheme can be rolled out to include theatres up and down the country: why stop at giving the National Theatre to Sheffield? It would be lovely to see Sheffield Crucible productions, for instance, on London screens.