Theatre these days appears to not be on the stages of the Globe or the National, but before the comfy screens of an Odeon or a Curzon. All big West End blockbusters eventually settles in select screenings across the UK now: I know I can miss any Hamlet or Cumberbatch because I can catch up on the action in a month or two at my local Odeon. But does that cheapen the experience? I know people who have paid up to a hundred pounds to see some plays in London, yet I could eventually get them for under a twenty. I have been wondering if this digital embrace from the arts has broadened the demographic horizon, or if, in reality, it’s encouraged regular theatregoers from switching to the more affordable option.
If anything, these ‘event’ cinemas are not just for plays, but all corners of the arts; and from the looks of things, it’s what the people want. Puccini’s La Bohème is a prime example of this: on the 15th January, this live screening of Puccini’s production had made over £300,000 in the UK, trouncing almost all cinematic competition in the box office besides Tom Hooper’s Les Miserable. Just last year we’ve even been getting a taste of museums in the cinema, as Vikings Live sold several thousand in its filmic exhibition of Norse trinkets. It seems to be a win-win for both the arts and the venue: the theatres, museums and plethora of performing arts have the chance to boost their profits months after a show has finished by doing Live and ‘Encore’ screenings; while the select cinemas get a share in the profits (and potential bums on future seats).
What most people who argue about Live Screenings forget is two factors: price and place. For students such as myself, or even artsy aficionados, we can’t afford to see all these plays or ballets. The average ticket for an exhibition or performance is around £50 in price – most people would end up bankrupt if they go regularly to these events. As for place, people overlook the wonder of being a Londoner. There’s simply a banquet of things to see in the capital, but the millions who watch these screenings don’t have and Royal Opera House or a Globe Theatre on their doorstep. Not only does this provide opportunities for many, it also introduces many to theatres and shows that they wouldn’t get the chance to experience normally.
Of course there can be downsides to this way of watching. When Kenneth Branagh starred in a live screening of Macbeth at the National (now available on YouTube if you want to look it up), there were complaints about the awkward editing and the poor sound levels making everyone appear like they were whispering. Sometimes this can’t be helped; an actor or musician can play or project as much as they like but these massive spaces naturally echo and get lost in their size – it’s impossible for the crewmen to perfectly record all the visual and aural nuances of an actual performance. Yet no matter how sophisticated the cameras are, or how cheap the tickets become, the cinema screenings won’t truly translate an audience’s experience at the actual place. Cinema shows films for a reason, and museums and plays exist for the same reason too: every art form has a specific atmosphere and performance that cannot be replicated. A film can play with shots and editing, a gallery involves you actively journeying through the exhibition, and plays are up front and personal with their audience. Take Joshua Andrew’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, the entire set revolved for the whole play and it’s never truly captured in all its glory on camera. If I had to compare the experiences between a cinema and theatre viewing, I would have to admit that something is lost in translation.
But this isn’t about which medium displays these performances better, it’s if we should have the option of both at all – and I believe so. Firstly, I’ve noticed the quality of screenings only improve over the last two years: shots are clearer, sound levels are balanced, and the overall flow of these filmed pieces are just plain better. But the main argument, that these screenings are discouraging attendance of orchestras and operas, and soon will replace them is nonsense. Screenings are not trying to replace live performances, or prove themselves superior; they’re opening the demographic. As shown with the Nester’s Beyond Live research, audiences still have an appetite for going to the arts in person: people are still willing to pay the extra money to watch Maxine Peake as Hamlet or the next Nutcracker. And if they miss it? Well they now have the opportunity, like myself, to see it later on. Just because it’s easier for folks to go watch the Harry Potter films doesn’t mean they’re dissuaded from reading all 7 of the books. Nester also proved that people who don’t go the arts regularly are more likely to attend after they’ve seen a screening. The appeal for the arts has only broadened with these screenings, and has given opportunity to those not drowning in capital culture like us Londoners. And with event cinema doubling from £15m to £30m next year, it seems to be working. I may not get as fiery a muse within a wooden Odeon, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the experience of Shakespeare in a cinema chair or as a groundling in the Globe.