National Theatre Live: Film, Theater, Or Something Else?

A few months ago, I went to the Coolidge Corner Theatre to watch a filmed version of the National Theatre’s The Audience. Basically, I went to the movies to see a play. But is a play really what I saw? What is this nebulous type of media that has one foot in the world of theater and one foot in the world of film? Is it theater? Is it film? Or is it something else entirely, an amalgamation of sense and form with its own unique set of strengths and limitations?

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE

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For those unfamiliar, the National Theatre is a publicly-funded British theater company currently celebrating its 50th year in existence. The theater’s productions are generally performed at the National Theatre building in London (the well-lit modern structure pictured above), but they also tour at theaters across the United Kingdom.

In 2009, the theater launched National Theatre Live (NT Live), which broadcasts via satellite live performances of National Theatre productions into cinemas across the country and world. Because of time differences and demand, many NT Live viewers (such as myself) see these plays as recorded rather than live performances. Four years into the initiative, NT Live has broadcast 24 productions in over 700 venues in 22 countries.

Like the theater from which they are produced, the broadcasts enjoy limited screenings. This year, however, NT Live is rebroadcasting favorites from the past few years in honor of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary.

THE PRODUCTIONS

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Frankenstein

The Audience wasn’t my first experience with NT Live. Last year, I went to the Coolidge to see the its production of Frankenstein, an adaptation directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. At the screening I attended, Miller played the Creature and Cumberbatch, his creator.

It was enthralling. Truly. The production took one of my favorite books and created an engrossing stage version that focuses on the Creature’s struggle, a chilling treatise on what makes us human and what makes us humane. Miller and Cumberbatch were both superb (they co-won an Olivier Award for their performances), and Boyle’s decision to have the actors alternate the parts was inspired, highlighting the parallel humanities and horrors of the doctor and his creation – even for viewers who saw only one version of the production (i.e. me).

As a first-time NT Live viewer, I had entered the movie theater cynical about the experience of seeing filmed theater and left a complete convert. I would have preferred to see the production in person, but this was the next best thing, and it was decidedly worth the $20 I shelled out to see it.

The Audience

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The Audience is a much subtler play. An intimate look into the life of Queen Elizabeth II and a companion piece to the 2006 Oscar-nominated film The Queen (both film and play were written by Peter Morgan and star Helen Mirren), the play imagines the Queen’s conversations with almost all of the 12 prime ministers who have held office during her reign. Much like my pre-viewing relationship to Frankenstein, I went into seeing The Audience having loved its source material, and was eager to delve deeper into Morgan’s interpretation of this intensely-private public figure.

Unfortunately, deeper is not what I got. After seeing The Queen, The Audience felt tired and uninspired, like it was hitting the same notes as the film, but in a less-cohesive way. I enjoyed it – Mirren’s performance was exceptional, as were those of the supporting characters – but it didn’t stay with me in the way Frankenstein has even a year later.

FORM VS. CONTENT

In leaving the cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder if my varying degrees of satisfaction between The Audience and Frankenstein could tell me anything about the effectiveness of the filmed theater form in general – if it works better for some works than it does for others – or if it was just a matter of taste that I regarded Frankenstein‘s tale of Romantic horror over The Audience‘s personal and political musings. Finally, I wondered about the filmed theater form in general. Is there something essential that is lost when theater is translated into film? Is there something gained? And is there a space for this in-between medium in our culture? There’s aren’t questioned I can fully answer, but they are ones that beg to be explored.

THE STAGING

When discussing the form of filmed theater, it is relevant to note the staging of the play, i.e. how a performance space is designed and utilized. The Audience and Frankenstein were obviously staged with a live theater audience in mind, and in incredibly different manners.

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Frankenstein‘s staging was kinetic and innovative. A canopy of light bulbs hover above the stage, coming to luminosity whenever Victor electrifies his experiments.

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Sparks dance across the stage as a steaming train thunders onto it.

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Smoke provides the ever-waiting backdrop, like in this climactic encounters between Victor and the Creature.

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This isn’t just a visual tale; it is an all-out sensory one, evoking the gentle kiss of spring rain and the biting chill of the Arctic.  The staging utilizes immediacy and sense in a way especially suited for theater and that aspect of the production felt sadly diminished in cinema. Of the two NT Live productions, I felt the disappointment of not having seen Frankenstein as live theater more keenly.

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The staging of The Audience was straightforward, simple, and traditional. Ironically, its staging, and the way that staging was filmed, was cinematic. Unlike Frankenstein, which used space in an organic, complex way, The Audience was framed like a portrait: rigid and restrained. It was all right angles and frames. A picture inside  of a picture inside of a play.

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While the set details were gorgeous and more detailed than Frankenstein, they felt like artifice rather than honesty – which could have been the point. The set echoed the play thematically – the controlled construction of Elizabeth’s public persona seen in the stage’s design – but it also felt stilted and static. I’m not sure if this feeling was heightening in the NT Live version, but the theater has a warmth to it, a sense of connection even in dealing with the most tragic of subjects that may have off-set this impression in the live theater. This connection is part of what makes live theater gloriously different from the film form…

FILM VS. THEATER

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Of course, the theater-ness of theater is in more than just its staging. As a form, it differs from film in integral ways. These distinctions have been discussed and debated ad nauseum since the invention of cinema at the turn of the 19th century. Though I don’t think we’ll ever be able to satisfyingly put into words the differences in how it feels to watch a play versus how it feels to watch a movie – narrative works at an emotional and visceral level, and words can only take us so far into that realm – it’s fun to try.

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In his book Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, John Ellis muses on what makes looking at photographs or watching film different from the experience of witnessing something in person. He presents cinema’s unique “absence-in-presence” feeling as the paradoxical foundation of the form.

There is always a lurking sense of absence at the heart of the fullness that is the cinematic spectacle. We know that the actors in any fiction are not performing in front of us at the same moment we appreciate the astonishing illusion of their presence…The startling presence of the events on the screen emphasises the viewer’s separation from them, a separation that is both physical and temporal. This separation was experienced sometimes as a sense of loss, sometimes as a sense of inadequacy of the representation. But it is a defining characteristic of cinema, and so became the source of its enduring strength.

In a Guardian piece asking the question “Can a filmed stage show be as good as the real thing?”, art writer Hermione Hoby argues that theater’s power comes from shared communal experience with other theater-goers.

Theatre, as a much less inflected medium, really works when you are sitting in the audience and you realise that you are all feeling the same. The crowd laugh together, reassuring each other that it is OK to enjoy the experience. They respond as a group, each person having a subtly different but somehow unified experience. And when this is achieved simply by actors performing in front of us the very unmediated nature of the event lends it a power that is unsurpassed.

I would further elaborate that, while a shared communal experience happens in both the cinema and the theater, expectations associating with the distinct mediums differ. There is a rarity to theater, a finite-ness that prevents the spirit of popcorn-throwing and whispered jokes (for the most part). In the cinema, that expectation is not as high. You probably didn’t pay as much, and you can always go to the next screening if need be. You get that feeling of shared participation in laughing at the same jokes or crying at the same tragedies, but I would argue that it is not as sharp, nor as intense.The stakes are higher in theater, and that creates a suspense that transcends whatever is happening on stage. That same kind of visceral suspense is not present when watching a film.

But the questions remain: do these filmed versions of plays lose that suspense? That feeling that anything could happen? That live-ness? Or does the fact that this “film” was being performed for a live audience, and sometimes being broadcast live, mediate this effect? When the filmed version of The Audience begins, the camera starts in the audience of the theater. You are sitting amongst the live theater-goers, their heads gently obscuring your view of the stage. Once the actors start speaking, the camera slowly zooms forward until there is no audience left – or rather, you are at the front of it. It is simple and effective. I wonder how our experience as filmed theater-goers would change if the director removed that element, if we were never part of the live audience of the theater. As cinema-goers, can we become that audience? Can we piggyback on their sense of immediacy?

DOES FILMED THEATER WORK?

In two words, kind of. In watching these productions, I felt a sense of immediacy and connection more akin to theater than film. However, it was degree diminished from seeing a live production. I have been to the National Theatre. I have been to other high-caliber theater productions that made me feel full and real and connected. And I would never argue that watching an NT Live is the same thing, but  I would argue that it captures some of the kinetic energy of a successful theater performance. It recreates some of the, for lack of a better word, magic.

However, this feeling of “absence-in-presence” seems magnified, the cinematic format a nagging reminder that you aren’t there in the theater. These are not just events that could have been witnessed in person. These are events that were meant to be witnessed in person – in a specific space, time, and manner. Perhaps less is lost in The Audience‘s translation from theater to film because it deals thematically with a similar concept: nostalgia and the fluidity of time. Its telling is not linear, drawing attention to the manipulation of time in any work of fiction (which film as a medium does best of all). Its subject ages and de-ages before our very eyes. The play mirrors its form rather than fights against it, playing on this sense of loss Ellis suggests is so integral to the film form. We don’t just watch Mirren perform sadness at the separation she has from the younger versions of herself. We feel it, too, in the separation we as viewers have from the narrative world itself.

Still, it would be ridiculous to suggest that, even with a less-sensory staging of The Audience, nothing is lost when you see a production in the cinema versus live theater. And, when viewing Frankenstein, the loss in translation is that much more intense. Each of its triumphs – both formally and narratively – are felt and that much more tragically for not having seen them in the format intended and that much greater for this sense of having seen them at all. Frankenstein drew me in, causing me to lean in only to bang my head against the fourth wall again and again.  It makes for a funny, complex viewing experience – but a wonderful one nonetheless.

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