“After three hours in an Omniplex I am, at least, still alive” – livestreaming from theatre to cinema

Dorothy McDowell sees potential in livestreaming theatre, but it still fails to reach a mainstream audience

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A large empty cinema with black seats facing a large blank screen

Continuing a tradition begun in 2009, this month the National Theatre livestreamed their production of Antony and Cleopatra to 650 cinemas around the UK. I took this as an excuse to get out of the house for the evening, putting off the day when I run out of things to say to my parents and lapse into silence for the remainder of the Christmas break. Of the production as a whole, I have this to say: it was alright. Ralph Fiennes appeared to be doing a John Gielgud impression; my hopes of seeing an interpretation of Cleopatra that doesn’t make her seem like she should be sectioned were not fulfilled. Still, that’s not absolutely heartbreaking – and there was a live snake, so points for that. But I was able to spend ten minutes trying to think of something funny to say about Ralph Fiennes’ trousers without feeling like I’d missed out on anything.

The only thing that was striking about it was how un-striking it was. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it becomes indistinguishable from the RSC’s production last year (Google it – Antony Byrne and Ralph Fiennes have the same haircut). It’s Shakespeare the way everyone does Shakespeare, in the same modern dress everyone uses – nothing to make someone standing in the rain, at eleven o’clock on a Thursday night, remember why they bothered to leave the house in the first place.

So, who is bothering? The Society of London Theatre say that 15 million people went to see something live on stage in 2017, but what about those livestreams? Going to one is a strange experience, a bit like real theatre except with a fair chance of getting stuck next to someone (me) surreptitiously eating a chicken sandwich. It opens with a video in which Samira Ahmed assures you of a) the inherent greatness of the thing you are about to watch, and b) the welfare of the snake. It’s definitely not a substitute for live theatre because there’s nothing like a Craigavon retail estate for sucking the atmosphere out of something. And there’s no escaping the fact that an onscreen Ralph Fiennes in ill-advised trousers is no substitute for a real life Ralph Fiennes in (what, on closer inspection, I suspect would be) trousers even more ill-advised than you first thought. Still, it allows those of us condemned to live in fields see big-budget theatre.

But here’s my real problem with livestreaming: no one goes. The National Theatre say that NT Live broadcasts to 2500 screens worldwide, and that 1.2 million people “engaged” with them through the medium in 2017-18 (I don’t know what that means either). There were seven NT Live shows last year, plus Encore screenings – but not everywhere gets them, so let’s make that three. This results in a grand total of forty-eight people per show per venue. That’s just a statistic, of course: if you go to a livestream somewhere arty it will probably be sold out. But in the kind of cinemas I go to there are usually about fifty people. Plus me, with my chicken sandwich.

Last month the The King and I became the highest grossing livestream theatre event to date: 135,000 people watched it worldwide. Which is good, obviously. But, without wishing to be that person, 12.6 million people watch I’m a Celebrity every week – and I’m a Celebrity isn’t even good anymore. And I know TV’s a lot cheaper, and you don’t have to drive for 40 minutes to watch it, and that occasionally you just want to watch Noel Edmonds suffer. But sometimes theatre is more fun.

It occurs to me that you might misinterpret my lukewarm response to Antony and Cleopatra, and conclude that people don’t go to livestreams because the ‘live’ being ‘streamed’ is bad. But I don’t think they would go even if it was amazing. It wasn’t until I went to London that I met other people who were into theatre. Up until then, everyone I had ever met didn’t think about it for longer than was actually necessary, and then only to conclude that it was Art and therefore boring. And, for all it talks about being modern and visceral, it is hard to shake the suspicion that theatre has decided that’s what it is too.

I realise this structure leads naturally towards a self-congratulatory Clever Solution, but fortunately for you I don’t have one. I don’t know how it happened, how to stop it, or whether I might not be wrong in thinking it’s happened at all. I know I don’t want livestreams to stop – beyond that all I can say with certainty is that I am a) confused, and b) unhappy.

So instead I will say this: theatre is fun. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

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