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Matt Trueman: Video archives risk losing as much as they find

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, one of the productions in the V&A's collection. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Daniel Craig stands up to Michael Gambon: a tough, tousled young man in a white T-shirt. His face isn’t the same one we think of today: chiselled, blue-eyed, James Bond. It’s podgier and puffier than that. A brawler’s face: eyes red, nose wide. He’s probably, what, 35. Gambon’s 60-something and square-shouldered with a car salesman’s moustache. It’s immediately uncanny.

They’re playing A Number by Caryl Churchill. Craig’s the clone; Gambon’s the dad. It’s 2002 and I’m sat way up in the gods, an A-level theatre studies student staring down at the Royal Court stage for the first time. It’s vertiginously high.

It’s also 2017, and the two men are squaring off on a projector screen at the Victoria and Albert Museum – a recording celebrating 25 years of the National Video Archive of Performance.

The scene is exactly as I remember it – and it’s not. I’d reframed it as Bond versus Dumbledore – both men as they are, not as they were. Mostly, I remember the floor: wooden slats in a herring-bone pattern. That’s what I saw first time around: the top of two heads and a load of brown tiles.

It’s an invaluable resource, the NVAP – a treasure trove of old theatre. Theatre is ephemeral. Memories of it mutate. Reviews, photographs, programme notes leave gaps. The rest is guesswork. Video offers a corrective.

Over 25 years, the V&A has built a brilliant collection: Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron and Ben Whishaw as Hamlet; Eve Best’s Hedda Gabler, Complicite’s Street of Crocodiles – all caught on celluloid as if preserved in amber. The question it’s left me, however, is what we’ve lost.

Any collection needs some form of curation: somebody, somewhere selecting which shows to record. There isn’t the time or the resources to capture everything and, besides, plenty of shows just don’t stack up. Last year, NVAP added its most shows to date – 28. Out of how many across the UK?

Those shows come to stand for the rest. They shape the norm: the same few theatres, the same writers and actors. It’s a question of cultural significance – what’s worth keeping? Logistics play a part too. How long’s the run? How big’s the venue? What sort of theatre lends itself to film? You won’t find a Punchdrunk show in the archives, nor an Ontroerend Goed one-on-one performance. Some of the most significant work gets left off the list.

That issue is exacerbated by NT Live. Only a tiny proportion of theatre gets broadcast and, to justify the costs, it tends to be big stages, classic texts with stars in the cast. Cinema broadcasts widen the reach of those shows and, as such, expand the distance between the mainstream and the alternative. It entrenches one idea of theatre over another. We mustn’t lose sight of that. The camera can capture theatre. It can also make it disappear.

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