Launched in 2009 with a production of Phèdre with Helen Mirren, National Theatre Live aims to bring the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Broadcasts have now been experienced by over 1.5 million people in 500 venues around the world, including 250 in the UK. Past broadcasts include Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and One Man, Two Guv’nors with James Corden.
The latest offering in the programme is Josie Rourke’s version of the little seen Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse: Shakespeare’s last tragedy, his most political play and possibly his least favourite title character. Characterising the power struggle between the early Roman republic’s two main social classes; the patricians and the plebeians, it speaks of the common themes of war, social inequality and the abuse of power.
Having never experienced watching a play in the cinema the first surprise was the size of the audience, the powerful draw of Tom Hiddleston enough to fill the entire screening room.
Differences between the live theatre experience and the filmed one soon become apparent: unlike the theatre, this presentation included Emma Freud introducing the work, some background videos and a somewhat cringe-worthy live interval-time interview with director Josie Rourke musing on the casting of “sexiest actor on the planet” Hiddleston. Whilst these might provide some worthwhile information for those unfamiliar with the play (my presumption was that most people investing in the cost of a ticket for a screening of a Shakespeare play might have some inkling of what they were letting themselves in for) this is not the norm, so if the intention was to recreate the experience of live theatre this was somewhat off-base. The filmed production, unlike on stage, also has a measure of editing involved: the use of multiple camera angles and cutting between them, is one not experienced in a theatre, but the film-makers to their credit respected the fact that there is no such thing as a close up or a panning shot in theatre and studiously avoided them.
As an example of British acting at its best there could be no better showcase. That Hiddleston is the finest actor of his generation is in no doubt after watching this production and the supporting cast are of a universally high quality in particular Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, Hadley Fraser as Aufidius and Mark Gatiss as Menenius. Rourke’s stripped-back staging gets the balance right between retaining the feel of ancient Rome whilst infusing the production with a welcome modernity. The creative lighting too adds atmosphere and creates a sense of menace throughout.
As an opportunity to gain access to productions that one otherwise might not be able to is worthy, the fact that it may inspire non-theatre goers to give live productions a try can only be encouraged, but as an emotional or visceral experience it does not have the power to move that being in a theatre does. the sense of a shared emotional experience just wasn’t there. There was also the embarrassing situation of to clap or not to clap at the curtain call, with the audience divided 50/50 (I was in the half who didn’t feel moved to clap – it just didn’t feel right – it was a cinema after all!)
Put simply: Did I enjoy it? Yes. Is it as good as live theatre? No. Would I do it again? Yes.