A new trend has been emerging in recent years: live West End theatre being screened to cinemas around the country and the globe. With Digital Theatre and National Theatre Live leading the field, launched in ’08 and ’09 respectively, this phenomenon is allowing the joys of our world leading theatre to reach many it would not normally reach. This is undoubtedly something to be celebrated, especially for those in far flung regions where there is little choice regarding serious theatre bar an expensive and inaccessible trip to London. Is it so cut and dry, though, that cinema screenings are for the better and add to the medium? Or does it damage theatre in any way, cheapening what should be a unique live experience?

Theatre ticket prices have been on the rise for years. In the early days of this new sensation there was some concern that cinema screenings, costing significantly less per ticket, would detract from live paying audiences and take money away from theatre companies. However National Theatre has announced record profits, due heavily to income from NT Live. In an age of savage cuts to arts funding this news means that the National Theatre could feasibly become self-financing, a good sign for the future of our culture and theatrical heritage.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, former Director of the National Theatre, expressed his view saying “A huge number of the people who saw [NT Live’s first ever screening of Phedre] on screen had never been to the NT because they lived very far away – so for them it was a very special experience.” He also commented, “The close-ups, the clarity of sound, the sense that you can get behind an actor’s eyes the way you can on a big screen in a movie really turned out to be an advantage.” Ramin Karimloo, star of the 25th anniversary concert of Andew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera watched the cinema screening and aired his views: “How they’ve edited it and how they shot it is just breathtaking. It really shows the cinematic aspect of it – it’s like we set out to do a film as opposed to a concert performance.”

Some theatre figures, with perhaps a more purist view, have claimed that capturing the performance on film would only result in watered down versions of the real thing and cheapen the experience. While these claims are understandable, one has to consider that not everyone is privileged enough to be able to attend top theatre regularly: although the cinema experience may not be the same and in some people’s eyes may not compare, it does mean that people who would not have the opportunity to see various productions live can view them through a more accessible and affordable medium.

Perhaps the most of important thing to consider is that a younger audience seems to be emerging from theatre embracing this new medium and theatre will always need to engage new generations in order to survive. The fact that it may also inspire actors from a less privileged background is also something to be excited about, as recent industry figures have expressed their concerns that acting seems to be for those from wealthier families and upbringings.

A survey conducted by Digital Theatre reported that 70% of participants said they would be more likely to attend a live theatre production after having seen one of its productions on screen. With theatre always searching for new ways to find new audiences cinema screenings appear to be a new effective way of doing so. Live theatre and cinema screenings are two different ways to view the same production and two different experiences which can co-exist and complement each other but one thing is for certain; this is a good thing for theatre goers.

Header image rights; David Samuel