David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s Much Ado About Nothing is apparently available to watch online or download. This is both wonderful and…not so wonderful. On the one hand, fantastic production with brilliant actors that everybody deserves to see; on the other, the fact that recordings of something intended to be live, in a different medium, can be odd.
Plays are not films. You have different lengths, you have intervals, you stage things differently, you even act differently. DVDs of stage productions, or even live streamings in cinemas, are a weird hybrid. This is the modern world though, where many things are experienced via various screens, not to mention money is tight. Is this trend – around since VHS, but gathering steam with the internet and live streamings – a necessary change?
One “problem” with theatre is that once a production ends, it is gone for good. It is all very well saying that in the 1990s a magnificent Broadway production changed how its audience perceived the world, just as it is fine to avoid Macbeth because a production five years ago was perfect. However, those productions, and sometimes the plays themselves, are gone. “Once in a lifetime” is great, but it is also vexing. Recordings can help fix this “problem”, especially since usually they are made because something merits it, regarding quality or significance: David Tennant’s Hamlet, for example, or Les Misèrables and Phantom of the Opera’s 25th anniversary concerts. Similar rules apply to live streamings. The latter also addresses accessibility: many cannot travel just for performances.
So recordings can preserve something amazing. This has its downside, though. While a DVD may be intended as reminder or compensation, over time it will become “The” version, overshadowing others like a movie adaptation. People might avoid a different, live rendition – no doubt already happening with Hamlet. They might also ask, why go when you can watch it at home?
That last question is similar to the difference between DVD and cinema, but arguably more so. DVDs and so on do not capture the feeling of watching something live. Once again, it is a matter of media, and moreover, atmosphere, which applies to any genre. To use a less refined example, every Christmas ITV2 plays recordings of pantomimes, and every Christmas I wonder why people sit through them, until I go in person and remember how much fun they are. Recordings may work to preserve the atmosphere, but you lose some of the staging tricks and effects, along with your fellow passengers, which make all the difference when you are watching it happen before your eyes.
DVDs cannot show the whole stage – or rather they often avoid it. They need to avoid adding distance when it is already being shown onscreen (as opposed to sitting far away), and besides, if they can zoom, they will, so you can see all of that Acting, even when not designed for close-up. This means you lose the ability to choose where you look. One of the great things about the stage is that usually there is more than one thing (events and reactions) happening at once. If you are onstage, you are in the play, so you act. I once spent the entire revolution scene in Les Misèrables watching the background characters, because they all had relationships and miniature stories conveyed entirely without words. In the 25th Anniversary DVD, during the same scenes the actors did a fine job of acting despite standing behind microphones, yet often all I saw was an elbow next to Nick Jonas.
Theatre is theatre because of the experience – and that does include the price and attempting to find your seat and other inconveniences. Some things are worth earning.
Recordings might, in the end, be seen as merely convenient; for a few, possibly necessary, but about as pleasant as most “necessities”. They are not the real thing, and often they do remove aspects. However, is anything that encourages continued interest, and stops you missing out, better? Should they start releasing DVDs of the live streams? Concerning the recent production of Frankenstein, if that recording existed, I would buy it. Hamlet, meanwhile, was a bit of an oddball from the beginning, as a version specially produced for TV. It is striking, but it is neither a play nor a film. Should there be more of these sorts of crossovers?
Plays can appear less popular today. DVDs and live streams have many flaws, but at least they do increase accessibility. There is the question of precisely which should be chosen for the honour, but often reviewers do agree when something should be seen. It is worth having something to preserve theatre and make it more available; it simply needs to be controlled. Remember this is not the real thing; just a compensatory substitute.