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Nicole Serratore: Cinema broadcast leaves angels with dimly-lit faces

Left: Russell Tovey and James McArdle in Angels in America at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Theatre productions beamed into the cinema act as soft diplomacy for the industry. It expands access beyond physical theatres and national boundaries, and connects audiences to shows they may not otherwise see. But what happens if your ambassador goes full Boris Johnson and puts the wrong foot forward for a show.

I attended a full-day marathon of Angels in America [1] in London in May. I was eager to revisit it via the NT Live recorded broadcast.  However, rather than giving viewers a front-row seat to Tony Kushner’s magnificent play, the filmed version of Millennium Approaches presented a laboured, plodding work – which was not my experience of the live show.

The film direction greatly improved for Perestroika but will filmgoers return for the second part when three-plus hours of Part One is such a slog?

That first broadcast struggled to find a cinematic perspective that served the theatrical production. Film and theatre can work together as many live screenings have shown. Shot structure, camera placement, lighting, and sound can – when done well – communicate the theatrical vision via film.

But here to capture slow revolves of the sets, the film audience had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for the camera to push in closer on the action. All we could do was stare into the abyss of a dark stage wondering why the camera was lingering so long from far away.

I misidentified the race and gender of an actor in a long-shot taken from an imaginary dress circle 10,000 miles away. My friend sincerely asked if he’d missed the angel “crashing through the ceiling” because he was confused by what was happening on the dimly lit stage.

Even in close-up, there were awkward creative choices. The lighting design left actors severely underlit or it cast ghastly shadows – Russell Tovey’s handsome visage became distorted just by bad lighting in one shot, never mind the unfortunate backlighting which lit his ears like a beacon but nothing else.

The film did not resemble the emotionally wrenching phenomenon I experienced at the Lyttleton.

I had some problems with Marianne Elliott’s production – the colourless, neon-heavy set and heavy-handed music that blasted us in and out of scenes irritated me no less on film. Although the one blessing of the faint lighting was the scampering “elves” in spandex were harder to see.

But the performances in this landmark play made my journey to London worthwhile. This cast offered illuminating interpretations of iconic characters and they opened up the play in new ways to me. That’s why I bought NT Live tickets.

There are rumours of a Broadway transfer of Angels in America. Many Americans will have already caught the play via NT Live (the Millennium screening I attended was packed, though the crowd thinned out for Perestroika a week later) and were possibly given a flawed impression.

Normally NT Live is a great brand ambassador, but this misstep could have business consequences. Rather than fomenting positive word-of-mouth and getting the buzz going early for a Broadway revival, this poorly filmed show could dissuade people from buying Broadway tickets all together.