Say what you like about Ed Hall – and plenty have – but his tenure at Hampstead Theatre has seen some serious attempts to bring shows to the masses, digitally speaking.
I don’t mean National Theatre Live-style plays in a cinema, but actual free web broadcasts of new writing. Most notable was Howard Brenton’s #aiww – The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, whose slightly cumbersome name was in fact a concerted effort to get the then-imprisoned Chinese artist’s name trending globally at the hour of screening.
Last weekend, the Hampstead Theatre’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s two-hander I and You was streamed on Instagram for 72 hours. A massively popular social media platform making overtures to theatre, an art form that has largely withstood the internet era, is a bold move.
‘I’m not sure it would necessarily have won many converts to the theatre cause’
Added to this, the medium of choice to stream it is the mobile phone, an object loathed with a volcanic hatred by many in the theatre community. The very idea of watching a play on one would clearly give a certain stripe of theatregoer an aneurysm.
I watched I and You on my smallish iPhone screen and the verdict is that it was… interesting? The short play, starring Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones, was put out pretty much uncut as far as I could tell, but some drastic directorial choices had been taken to maximise its ‘umph’ on the phone; though there was no attempt at the quasi ‘in-the-theatre’ vibe that NT Live aims for.
There’s the odd ranged shot, but it’s almost all in close up. Sometimes, during important exchanges, we get – heresy – a split screen with two close ups. Occasionally the camera simply cuts to a static close up of a prop that’s being talked about. And there is no audience sound – a regular theatregoer will be expecting at least polite laughter at the jokes, but there’s nothing.
It was definitely diverting. But it didn’t feel like theatre, especially. So much about the form is about being in the room, its explicit liveness and scale. This really felt like watching a budget US TV comedy (absolutely not a criticism), and on those terms it kind of worked, but only so far. At this point, I can’t imagine any circumstances under which a web stream of a show could possibly damage its commercial fortunes at the box office.
I and You seemed to be the sort of production that would work with the format. A big Shakespeare play, or something like The Ferryman, or anything with a complicated set, would probably give the viewer seizures as it frantically jump cut to take in all the action.
There’s also a question about the audience for this sort of broadcast. On Sunday night, when I watched it, just under 3,000 people had viewed part one, which is many times the capacity of Hampstead but not spectacular in the greater scheme of things.
My impression was that the theatre hoped a teen audience priced out of Hampstead Theatre, or intimidated by it, might tune in, and perhaps this was the case. But I’m not sure it would necessarily have won many converts to the theatre cause, simply because the experience was so unlike theatre.
It’s an interesting experiment and was nothing to be afraid of. At the very least, it has given a play life beyond its physical run. But for all the innovation, theatre still feels like an obstinately analogue medium.