Opinion: Event Cinema vs live theatre

Event cinema

War Horse

The List's Theatre editor Garth K Vile looks at the merits of screening dramatic art at local cinemas

Event Cinema – the simultaneous broadcast of a live theatre performance into cinemas around the world – has several advantages over traditional performances. The chairs are more comfortable, big shows and stars from London and Moscow can be seen in smaller towns and cities and instead of over-priced tubs of ice-cream in the interval, over-priced nachos and popcorn.

The National Theatre Live programme, which has received considerable investment during the refurbishment of London theatres, has presented a wide range of different types of show, from Sam Mendes’ shout-along King Lear to A Streetcar Named Desire with science-fiction pin up Gillian Anderson.

Alongside offerings from The Bolshoi, English National Opera and The Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre Live provides many parts of the UK with the opportunity to see some of the most imaginative, and well-funded, theatre and dance. Finally, after an atrocious record for touring since its foundation, the National Theatre of Great Britain is bringing art to the benighted provinces.

Despite these advantages, Event Cinema isn’t an unalloyed good. Fears that it will attract theatre audiences away from live theatre in local venues, or encourage a vision of theatre that is all Shakespeare and star names – and even encourage stage directors to interpret for the camera, with its close-ups and panning shots – had not been soothed by the growth of the programme. Coming in at around the same price as recent productions of Hamlet at the Citizens and Three Sisters at the Tron in Glasgow, the promise of movie-star names – or at least familiar television actors is a big pull.

However, arguments against the value of seeing theatre on film – it is a different kind of event, it lack the intimacy of live performance – only confirm that Event Cinema is not the same art form as its live cousin. Since the camera can control the audience’s point of view, the narrative is dictated by the film itself – the spear-carrier is no longer able to upstage King Lear, as the camera cuts out background as necessary.

Most tellingly, Event Cinema impacts on the quality of a work. War Horse, which has become a touring sensation for its visceral use of puppetry and dynamic scenography, is transformed by film into a bunch of yokels waving sticks against a murky background. And Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake, for all its moments of cheeky satire and brilliant brutal, sexual choreography, has long periods of dancers pottering about the stage to little impact: in its 3D film version, it is a profound and immersive dance-drama.

The difference between Event Cinema and live theatre is like the difference between a super-sized coke and sticky carpets against a gin and tonic in the upstairs bar at Covent Garden. Both provide liquid refreshment, but their context appeals to different audiences. If anything, Event Cinema provides a new art form, with its own economies and enthusiasts: theatre audiences go on about the importance of the live experience – without really knowing what that means, and ignoring the amount of technology that supports those organic players on stage – and they get a particular experience, of intimacy, or community, that the event cannot give. However, the presence of theatrical names and ideas in the local multiplex is a good counter-blast to American block-busters, and sets up a conversation about theatre in a wider culture.

Event Cinema is unlikely to generate a new generation of audiences for live theatre, but it is equally unlikely to steal crowds from the local rep. It is its own art-form, and can work both for theatre addicts who need a fix, to find out what’s going on in the wider theatrical world and casual cinema-goers who fancy an alternative to Pirates of the Caribbean XXXII. A little bit of joined up thinking might even bring them into the local theatre – a few adverts, perhaps? – and shove the dramatic arts back into public attention. It might even rescue Shakespeare from school-room hell.

A Streetcar Named Desire

  • 4 stars
  • 1951
  • US
  • 2h 5min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Elia Kazan
  • Written by: Tennessee Williams, Oscar Saul
  • Cast: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

Brando takes the acting honours and, with this film, sets the style for method acting for years to come. Tennessee Williams' steamy sex romp seems a little tame by today's standards, but the realism of the drama remains intact and the performances are to be savoured.

National Theatre Live: King Lear

  • 2011
  • UK
  • E
  • Directed by: Michael Grandage
  • Cast: Derek Jacobi, Gina McKee, Paul Jesson

Live screening of the National Theatre's production of King Lear, starring Ian McKellen.

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein

  • 2011
  • UK
  • 15
  • Directed by: Danny Boyle
  • Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller

Mary Shelley's classic gothic tale realised by Danny Boyle in his return to theatre. The roles of Dr Frankenstein and the Creature are alternated between Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller.

National Theatre Live: Coriolanus

  • 2014

Josie Rourke directs Shakespeare's infamous Rome-set tragedy of politics and revenge about a war hero, who must face an angry people threatened with famine. Starring Tom Hiddleston in the demanding title role.

National Theatre Live: War Horse

  • 2014

Screening of the stage version of Michael Morpurgo's novel about WW I, featuring life-sized puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company.

National Theatre Live: Medea

  • 2014
  • Directed by: Carrie Cracknell

Helen McCrory plays the title role in this live screening of the classic tragedy, in a new version by Ben Power.

National Theatre Live: Skylight

  • 2014
  • UK
  • Directed by: Stephen Daldry
  • Written by: David Hare
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy

Kyra (Mulligan) receives a visit from her recently widowed former lover (Nighy) out of the blue. Stage production beamed live from London.

National Theatre Live: JOHN

  • 2014
  • UK

DV8 Physical Theatre perform their new production, conceived and written by Lloyd Newson, based on stories of love and sex told by a real-life man named John.

National Theatre Live: As You Like It

  • 2016
  • 12A

Shakespeare’s comedy of love and change comes to the National Theatre for the first time in over 30 years, with Rosalie Craig (London Road, Macbeth at MIF) as Rosalind.