Is it really theatre if it’s live on the big screen?


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time created a stir when it premiered in August 2012. A well-written, creatively presented show, and one that should be on most people’s list of must-see productions. It was not in the theatre that I first saw the show, however, but in the cinema.

The National Theatre launched live screenings of popular plays in cinemas all over the country in 2009 in an attempt to enable more people to enjoy the delights of the theatre without West End prices. But is theatre really theatre when it happens in a cinema?

In ‘cinema-theatre’ individual perspective is transformed; in the theatre your experience is coloured by how well you can see the stage and at what angle, while live screenings always provide you with the best view possible. A combination of close-ups and long shots ensure that you can see everything in detail.

Although you never miss out on the main action of the play, the freedom to follow minor characters or to have a harder look at the set is lost when the camera zooms in. The whole thing is slightly disorientating because the camera follows the actors at close quarters, meaning that at points you do not gain the full effect of the stage in front of you.

When watching the actors close up, I was struck by the sheer quality of acting and the detail the play went into to make everything realistic and believable. Despite this, some of the magic of the theatre was lost; you are close enough to see the little microphones stretching across the actors’ foreheads and are reminded with a jolt that the rat in the cage is motorised.

Truly immersing oneself in the drama and believing it becomes more difficult in a cinema, a context in which we have come to expect special effects. Seeing a play on-screen is an experience we’re simply not used to.

Moreover, for me going to the theatre is an occasion. It is not just the acting and what is on stage that makes it the experience; I enjoy everything from buying my programme and finding my seat to the expectant hush that comes over the audience before the actors start.

These elements are lost when going to the cinema to see a play: the audience in the cinema is smaller and isn’t as willing to audibly gasp, laugh and shudder as they do in theatres. It is unusual for people to clap at the end because they are, after all, watching a film. Programmes aren’t always on offer and so the interval becomes a short break rather than an opportunity to read the cast-list whilst eating ice-cream. Popcorn just isn’t the same.

So, when a play is filmed is it still theatre? It’s not quite theatre, but it’s definitely not film. Live screenings are still confined by the production’s space and technology. The camera doesn’t use sophisticated angles because that’s not written into the play, for instance. Not quite theatre and definitely not film as we know it, but a great night out nonetheless.


Frankenstein and A Streetcar Named Desire will be playing at the Phoenix Picture House in Jericho in September and October this autumn. Find screenings near you at: ntlive

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