We all pay, through our taxes, to support subsidised theatres, so there is a duty on those theatres to reach as many taxpayers as they possibly can. Of course, theatre is largely static (unless it tours), so only the people who can physically reach it can attend in person.
But such geographical limitations have been dissolved by the idea of broadcasting live transmissions of productions into cinemas around the UK and even the world. Never mind that the National Theatre can now truly live up to its name – it is now also a truly international outfit thanks to NT Live, and has become one of the most visible theatre companies in the entire world.
The (unsubsidised, but publicly spirited) Shakespeare’s Globe has similarly reached across the entire globe with its live webcast transmissions (and done it far faster than its current touring production of Hamlet, which is on a mission to play in every country in the world).
[pullquote]The Lion King has taken more than twice as much box office as Avatar[/pullquote]
Cats may have ushered in a new era of globalisation in musical theatre where productions have been endlessly replicated on a global scale. Shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, The Lion King and Wicked follow in its wake. But those shows have taken years to roll out globally and earn the kind of revenues that have seen The Lion King ring in global sales of more than $6.2 billion. (It is now the top box office title in any medium – Avatar took $2.8 billion.)
But that requires a physical presence – The Lion King has so far been seen in 22 different productions around the world. The new route of cinema and television distribution, by contrast, only requires one production and one cast to be filmed. Yet the audience for them can be virtually limitless, even when they play in houses as small as the Donmar Warehouse or Young Vic, as recent productions of Coriolanus and A Streetcar Named Desire have shown. Both used NT Live as a distribution channel for live transmission into cinemas. Ditto the Kenneth Branagh Macbeth, seen even more briefly as part of the Manchester International Festival.
So those productions, each seen by a necessarily limited theatrical audience, have managed a far wider reach than they ever could have before. It breaks the stranglehold of exclusivity. Even if you’re not organised enough or connected enough or rich enough to get your hands on a ticket, you can still see the show.
Commercial theatre, however, works differently: it typically plays on (and on) as long as there are audiences ready to see it (or at least actors are willing to work in it). But the current era of limited star runs means many potential spectators of shows like The Audience and Skylight (the former with Helen Mirren, the latter with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan) were denied the chance to see them until NT Live came along.
But what to make of last weekend’s cinema screenings, nine and a half years into Billy Elliot? It’s hardly impossible to get a ticket to see it at the Victoria Palace these days, but the show would seem to have a lot of commercial life left in it yet. But the producers allowed the cameras in, and laid on a special celebratory finale that included the appearance of no less than 27 actors who’ve played the title role in the last decade.
I attended the screening at Waterloo’s IMAX, which was maybe a third full; perhaps the public appetite to see Billy Elliot in a cinema when the real deal is available a mile away wasn’t quite as great as a sold out run at the Young Vic might have been.
On the other hand, the cinema broadcast might have simply been a marketing opportunity to remind audiences the show was still on, and to persuade those who saw it in the cinema to seek out a performance at the theatre. As lively as the broadcast proved (and offered some views, like those from above the stage, that a theatre audience has never seen), there was still something missing for me. I was about as close as it is possible to be unless you’re sitting in the front row, yet the screen flattened the action a bit.
It proved to me that a cinema showing can never replace the live event. At the same time, I was thrilled to watch the astonishing Elliott Hanna in the title role, bringing all the character’s vulnerability but also hope, guts and talent to the stage so palpably that it translated directly to the screen. And Ruthie Henshall, now playing dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, brought exactly the same qualities to her role. They gave the show its devastating heart; but there’s also such wonderful craft and exhilaration in its staging that this remains one of the all-time British musical classics. But it also reminded me where it truly belongs: on stage.