NT Live, the new access project from the National Theatre, has been a recognized success. Even the critical press seemed to like it, although quite what “multi-video cameras” are remains a mystery to me at least. Broadcasting live performances to screens is nothing new: the ROH’s BP Summer Screens project is a similar idea, and the Met Opera in New York have been broadcasting to cinemas around the world in High Definition for a number of years, but the project from the NT is the first time that drama has had this level of exposure and access in the UK.
What the success of the NT’s project shows is that the theatre is more than a familiar institution: the National does a superb job of acting as a civic space but in some senses this can seem to detract from the performance itself. Does the audience come because they want to see the play or because the whole experience is a nice way to spend a Saturday night, with the play a pleasant addition to the bookshop and the reasonably prices bars and the live music and the photographic exhibitions and the platform speakers? By stripping this away and showing the same performance in venues entirely devoid of these peripheries, the performance becomes in some way even more pure than when it is seen at the theatre itself. Ensuring access for all to quality theatre is why we need a national theatre, and NT Live is a superb part of this programme.
Going arguably one better than the NT are Pilot Theatre based in York. Last weekend they became pioneers when they broadcast their production, Catcher in Their Eye live to the internet, free to all. This is an inspiring experiment in access and one which seems to have been a resounding success: Pilot Theatre plan to stream all their future productions in the same way.
This medium of live broadcast retains everything superb about live theatre (in a way that recording productions for film or television, such as the RSC are to do with Hamlet – interesting as that project is in itself – does not): the spontaneity, the potential for imperfections, the character, tenor and feeling of a given performance and the shared group experience. Very exciting.