Event Cinema (Blaugust Day 22)

Readers of my Film Posts since I started them back in February will know that I’m a big fan of “Event Cinema”: broadcasting major theatrical events into cinemas.

This has been going on for a while – rock concerts, major football games, opera – but it’s clicked into a new gear in the past couple of years.

The poster for Richard II with David Tenant (click to link to production photos on the RSC website)

The poster for Richard II with David Tenant (click to link to production photos on the RSC website)

The first one I saw was Richard II broadcast on 13 November 2013 live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It starred David Tennant, so was bound to pull in an audience just on his name. I went with my elder son to see it, but wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe they would just have a fixed camera pointed at the stage to make you feel like were in a seat in the audience. Was this even theater or cinema? I wrongly decided it was cinema, so I bought popcorn, then felt really wrong about that all the way through and I’ve not done that since (you don’t buy popcorn for a theatre trip).

The broadcast of the production was a thrill. Far from having a fixed camera, there were multiple cameras, swirling in amongst the actors. This was like a live television performance edited directly in camera, like they used to when drama went out live: close-ups on the speakers, wide shots to show the whole stage, the cameras working with the movements of the actors. It worked.

Since then I’ve lost count of the productions I’ve seen in this way, not just from the RSC but from the National Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre, Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe (and a single opera – The Pirates of Penzance –  from English National Opera).

The poster for Coriolanus at Donmar Warehouse

The poster for Coriolanus at Donmar Warehouse

Following the broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus with a brilliant Tom Hiddleston I looked up review comments on the internet. There were people complaining that this wasn’t the way to see theatre, that you should enjoy it live and in person or not at all. I can’t buy that. I live in the English Midlands, I can’t get to London easily, and it’s very expensive to do so – it’s not just the cost of the ticket, but it’s the train fare, a meal and probably an overnight stay. And that’s assuming you can even get a ticket – Donmar Warehouse seats around 250 people. Or that you even live in Britain – many of these productions are broadcast worldwide. So what “Event Cinema” is doing is giving the opportunity to people to see productions they otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to see, and surely that can only be a good thing.

I’d still rather go to see a live performance – I was at Stratford in April to see the RSC’s production of Death of a Salesman with Antony Sher and Harriett Walter, and there’s no substitute for being in the theatre while performances as great as those unroll before you. But it’s impractical to go to everything, and it’s a lot cheaper to go to your local cinema (and quite often the seats are more comfortable too).

My wife’s view isn’t so enthusiastic, and I do see her point. We saw the broadcast of Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein  from the National Theatre, with Benedict Comberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. I thought it was excellent, and a privilege to have been able to see it (I couldn’t have seen it in the theatre, and missed it when it was broadcast live). But her view was that the production was just too big to be constrained by the cameras – the performances were aimed at the back of the auditorium and too “theatrical” for the camera, and the spectacular stage effects were diminshed because you weren’t seeing them as they’d been designed to be seen. She’d almost rather not have seen it at all than see it like this. My view is the opposite – I’m glad to have had the chance to see it.

The Crucible broadcast from The Old Vic

The Crucible from The Old Vic (click to watch the trailer for the broadcast)

By contrast, we were both impressed with the production of The Crucible from the Old Vic. The Old Vic has recently been refurbished and is now “in the round”, and that creates a small, tight stage with the audience very close, which suits the intensity of a play like The Crucible and the camera doesn’t strip that intensity away. Minor quibble – this wasn’t broadcast live, but was assembled from two live performances, which gave a couple of small continuity errors….which you don’t get at a live performance.

I don’t think I’d go to see a rock concert – the atmosphere wouldn’t be right – I’ve not seen a ballet (that’s a general statement, not just a reference to Event Cinema – I’ve never seen a ballet) and only that one opera. And I’ve not yet been to the art exhibitions that have started being shown (I assume they work like a guided tour).

Is there a conclusion to this? For me the spread of Event Cinema is an important development, giving a wider public the chance to see productions they would otherwise have never seen. There are many things over the years I would have liked to see but couldn’t – Anthony Hopkins in Pravda, Antony Sher’s Richard III or Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, to name three – and how wonderful would it have been to have the chance to see them. Sure, it’s not the same, but it’s the next best thing.

A few weeks ago I mentioned in another post that the RSC is broadcasting Othello from Stratford on Wednesday (check local listings for details!), and I’m hoping to see that because it will be the first production I’ve seen live as well as in cinema, so for the first time I’ll have a direct comparison of the two experiences. If I manage to get there, there will be a post about it next weekend.

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