Theatre to screen: the end of live theatre?

It was recently announced that the National Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, initially scheduled for summer 2020, will now be filmed for TV in the Lyttelton Theatre. This show will not be like NT Live, a play filmed and streamed to an audience, but a film in its own right. It does beg the question of how we combine film and theatre, and whether there is a way to do it that preserves the majesty of the live performance.

The National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris explained how Romeo and Juliet will differ. He said: “The Lyttelton stage is very big and has the same space behind it and at the sides. What that means is if we clear everything out, we have a very big space… that can be turned into a film studio. We’re making a film, not capturing a play… We’ve got a top director of photography, a script supervisor, a gaffer, a grip and a certain amount of film expertise alongside all the theatre staff. It’s a very interesting meeting point. It’s great to be breaking a bit of new ground.”

One of the most gripping things about theatre is its immediacy. Actors are performing live in front of you, creating an energy that you cannot find elsewhere.

One of the most gripping things about theatre is its immediacy. Actors are performing live in front of you, creating an energy that you cannot find elsewhere. You can watch your favourite film all week and still love it, but there’s no variability. Contrastingly, I could watch the same piece of live theatre with the same actors every night, and experience a different version of the show each time. I’m not claiming one medium is necessarily better, but they’re both undeniably unique, and so combining the two risks that uniqueness being lost. Part of the thrill of watching theatre is that immediate connection between audience and performer, and filmed theatre needs to mitigate that. For example, we should never see a filmed pantomime, as it needs that magic.

I remember reading an interview about ‘Suddenly’, the new song in the 2012 film version of Les Misérables. Sung by Jean Valjean after he rescues Cosette, it struck me because of their rationale for the new addition. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg said: “There is a chapter in the book that I think only a camera can catch… It’s a feeling he never had before and, on stage, it’s very difficult to catch the intimacy of this moment.” This is one of the most significant differences between film and theatre: the ability to use close-ups, and to have our focus directed to a certain element or person. These two mediums have a very different language, and mixing them together can result in interesting productions.

A filmed experience lets you experience the stage in a new way, and develop a sense of intimacy: you’re close to the action in a way that even front-row seats don’t allow.

But is it not the case that the language of film often subsumes the language of theatre? By using a close-up, the audience is deprived of the ability to experience a whole stage because their attention is directed to a certain place. Yet, although it may detract in one place, it arguably enhances another, as a filmed experience lets you experience the stage in a new way, and develop a sense of intimacy: you’re close to the action in a way that even front-row seats don’t allow. I’ve been to plays and sat so far back, it’s hard to truly engage. At its best, filmed theatre is able to break down barriers of space that the traditional set-up requires.

I think filmed theatre is a solid compromise at the moment, as it enables fans to experience theatre in a way that doesn’t strip away large chunks of the live experience. But when we’re able to experience live theatre again, we should, because it is distinctly its own thing. In theatre, a monologue holds our attention because of the skill of the actor and the tension this creates in the room. However, in film the camera stays with them, holding the audience’s attention manually, and we don’t have any choice in the matter. I think this highlights that the real difference is how we engage with these two worlds: two worlds that can make for happy bedfellows but which should both have their own lives come the end of lockdown.

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