culture on your doorstep cover

Get top-notch London theatre at your local cinema! Really? Who knew you could get great culture on your doorstep?! Charlotte looks into what it’s all about – and if the live theatre experience translates to the big screen…

Every now and then I have an argument with a film buff – always male, I don’t know why – who says he can’t understand why anyone goes to the theatre these days. The cinephile just can’t get his head around why theatre audiences ooh and ah at smoke machines, rotating scenery and actors dangling on wires when the movies gave up on all that decades ago. If you want to watch a ship sink, go and see The Tempest and you’ll endure a whole lot of shouting, accompanied if you’re lucky by some flashing lights and stormy sound effects to liven up the stage direction: “Enter Mariners wet”. Whereas James Cameron can give you a better view of an actual real sinking ship than you’d have got if you’d spent the early hours of April 15th 1912 perched on top of a massive iceberg in the North Atlantic, bag of popcorn in one hand, opera glasses in the other.

My response to this attack on my favourite art form depends on how much I like the said cinephile; to what extent either party to the conversation is drunk; and how much of a captive audience he is. If young Orson has no obvious route of escape – no bar to run to, no kindly chum willing to change the subject – then this is my stock response: theatre isn’t a product, it’s an event. You don’t sit back and soak it in; you sit up and help make it. Together, a live audience and a company of actors make something unique – different every night of the run. Shakespeare spells it out in the prologue to Henry V. The play – which chronicles a legendary war – opens with one player, alone on the stage. He begs the audience to: “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts … Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them”. So the audience is imaginatively involved in making the world of the play. This is what puts the magic into theatre. For how much more do we open ourselves up to an artistic experience if we’re part of it?

And you don’t just help make the play by imagining those pictures that James Cameron would show you and Shakespeare wouldn’t; a live audience gives something else too. Atmosphere. Electricity. Actors aren’t just being self-effacing luvvies when they say “it was a good audience”. They feed off the audience’s energy. A spellbound crowd spurs an actor on to hold the pause that little bit longer; to dredge up and expose her very deepest emotions; to push a moment of hilarity to its very limits and then – snap! – to rein it back, just at the moment when the house is ready for something else.

So, when a friend asked if I fancied going to our local cinema to see Helen McCrory in Medea, streamed live from the Oliver Stage at the National Theatre, I was torn. Turning live theatre into a film couldn’t work, could it? I was worried it would be the worst of both worlds: it’s not a proper film so surely it would be visually dreary by the standards of cinema and I feared too that the atmosphere would be dead. Wouldn’t we, the tiny audience in an upstairs room of Macclesfield’s Heritage Centre, feel totally out of it?

But I went anyway. Beggars can’t be choosers. Let’s face it: living in the sticks, with two children and a fashionably bijoux income, this wasn’t a choice between seeing Medea in the cinema or the theatre; it was a choice between seeing Medea or spending another evening blending the life out of thirty-five portions of tomato soup it in the hope that Stella Simpson (21 months, unreasonable) would welcome it into her new ketchup-only diet. And I wanted to catch up with my friend anyway. But my expectations were low.

Well… I was wrong. Somehow the atmosphere was still there. The Macclesfield crowd was up for it. It looked like a full house both up here and in London. Visually I think I actually got a better deal than I would have done in the theatre. The live screenings team obviously knows what it’s doing and uses a good few cameras. We got the wide shots and some that were much closer in (although nothing like a cinematic close-up, which maybe wouldn’t have fitted with a theatrical performance). I certainly felt as if I was closer to the action than I would have been if I’d been sitting near the back of the Oliver Theatre. I don’t know if it would have worked so well if they’d been screening from a more intimate venue. And for me it definitely helped that it was live. I really get a buzz from knowing that anything can happen. I’m not sure how I’d have responded if it had been one of the ‘recorded as-live’ performances that are sometimes shown. Helen McCrory was on fire: dangerous, controlled and ultimately heartbreaking.

There was just one moment when I felt a little out of it: the curtain call. If they’d put a microphone in our cinema and linked us up to the National Theatre I’d have gladly stood up and cheered. Maybe I should have done anyway. But I didn’t. I just shuffled out of the cinema, my head swimming with dark thoughts about filicide. Medea is such a shocking play. I’d seen it before but I wasn’t a mother then. I’d struggle to articulate why – although if you made me, I guess I’d cobble together some pretentious justification involving the word catharsis – but, especially after a tragedy, I really want to clap. I want to see the actors smiling and holding hands and bowing and I want them to hear our applause. I guess I just want to feel that the world is alright after all and to participate in a moment of togetherness. That moment was still there, for a virtual audience, but for me it was weakened.

I won’t review the show here because it’s finished now but there’s a fantastic programme of plays at the National that are due to be screened nationwide over the next few months.

Theatre at the cinema: our what’s on guide:

Have a look at what’s coming up (theatre at the cinema) at the National Theatre website. I can’t wait to see Of Mice and Men with Chris O’Dowd and James Franco (essential viewing for any GCSE English students in your lives) and there’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller coming up too (great story, Mary Shelley, but I do hope they’ve re-written your ghastly dialogue…)

The Royal Shakespeare Company does cinema screenings too, although at the moment they’re only showing ‘as live’ recordings. Right now you might be able to find a cinema showing The Two Gentlemen of Verona; Henry IV, part one and part two; and David Tennant in Richard II. But in the spring there will be live transmissions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing.

And if you’re aching for some culture right now but you can’t even get out to a cinema, have a look at Digital Theatre. It lets you choose from a wide range of modern and classical theatre – big productions with big name casts – plus musicals, opera and dance. You can download a show instantly and watch it on a device of your choice for just a few pounds. I was so excited when I found this website. I just hope we can get the kids to bed early tonight…

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