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Howard Sherman: Hate long plays? Just think of it as binge-watching your favourite Netflix show

Andrew Garfield in Angels in America. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Two weeks ago, I binged on Glitch, from Australia. Last week, my binge was the rather obscure Imposters. This week, it’s Jessica Jones. Next week, Angels in America.

Now before you suggest that one of these things, in the words of Sesame Street, is not like the others – that one of these things doesn’t belong – allow a bit of explanation.

All told Glitch ran almost 12 hours, Imposters about eight, Jessica Jones some 11 hours and Angels will take about seven. They are all, in the words of a long-time friend, “bum burners.” That is to say: you’ll be sitting for a long time to allow them to tell their complete story. And given how long they are relative to a two-hour movie or 30-minute sitcom, maybe you will be a bit sore when it’s all said and done.

Angels in America review at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – ‘super-sized’

But, when we talk about binge-watching Glitch, Imposters or Jessica Jones, we’re doing something that’s all the rage. People post on social media how quickly they watched an entire season, not unlike the days when young readers stayed up all night to buy, and then read, each instalment of Harry Potter.

Yet when they hear of spending all day in a theatre, the average person will look at you as if you’ve gone mad. Six hours of Peer Gynt, even with intermissions and a dinner break? They react as if you’re a cultural masochist, enduring theatre like some David Blaine stunt. Don’t even try explaining a one-day marathon of all three plays in Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests to the uninitiated.

Netflix didn’t invent binge-watching. Theatre was way ahead of them

But the fact is, Netflix and other streaming sites didn’t invent binge-watching. Theatre was way ahead of them.

To toss out a few examples: The Mahabarahta. The Oresteia. Hamlet (uncut and not rushed). Strange Interlude. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Many, many more.

In this era of 90-minute intermission-less plays, which some suggest are being crafted to mimic films and play to the shortened attention spans of today’s audiences, we’re also celebrating works, on the small screen, which seem to transfix us for hours. We watch entire seasons of television in mere days. Conventionally released episodic television seems to drag on and on.

In the next few weeks, Broadway theatre audiences will have the chance to binge-watch Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and The Iceman Cometh.

It won’t be possible to start and stop them at will and the seating doesn’t allow us to stretch out and throw a blanket over our feet. But the fundamental principle between these shows and a Netflix binge is differentiated primarily by the digital experience versus the live one, and the monthly fee for access versus the cost of tickets to a lengthy, or two-part theatrical experience at prevailing prices.

I, for one, can’t wait, because while the term immersive theatre typically applies to works that break down the proscenium arch and mix artists with audiences, I like to immerse myself in an evening-long or even day-long story, sharing it with other committed theatregoers. While it’s not an evocative name, I refer to these experiences as durational theatre, for whatever that’s worth.

But next time you’re off to a lengthy show, one of more than three hours, maybe even four, remember to tell your friends that you’re off to binge-watch a play (or musical). They’ll get it and will be less likely to question your mental faculties. And perhaps they’ll even be a bit envious. Wouldn’t that be great?

This week in US theatre

From the moment Frozen hit it big in movie theatres in late 2013, talk of a Broadway version began. Now, after a tryout in Denver over the summer, Frozen opens on Broadway on Thursday less than five years after Let It Go became an almost inescapable song.

Disney’s Frozen review at Denver Center for the Performing Arts – ‘truly magical’

The book is by Jennifer Lee and the songs, both new and drawn from the film, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. It features Caissie Levy and Patti Murin as the sisters Elsa and Anna. Rob Ashford choreographs and Michael Grandage directs.

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