I don’t need to tell you that now is an absolutely terrible time; the single worst thing that has ever happened to most of us, and a disaster for the theatre industry. I get that. I am having a bad time too. I don’t mean to be glib.
However – and I’m not exactly sure how to say it without sounding like somebody in cataclysmic denial – the closing of the world’s theatres appears to have ushered in a digital theatre golden age.
There is a commonly touted statistic that more people attend theatres on a weekly basis than go to Premier League games (obviously a statistic from the Before Time). But it’s a slightly disingenuous one; top-flight football is ultimately something mostly watched on the telly. Factor that in and its audience dwarfs theatre’s.
But the slew of theatres that have opened their digital archives in response to the coronavirus pandemic have changed this; suddenly, theatre is something you can watch on the box as a matter of course.
And there’s been a blockbuster – the inaugural National Theatre at Home presentation of One Man, Two Guvnors was a vast hit, closing in on three million views on YouTube before it was taken down. It’s an inexact statistic, but it is surely one of the most-watched recordings of a single performance of a theatre show ever, the equivalent to a decade-long run in the Lyttelton theatre, and was certainly far more people than go to the theatre on any given week in the UK. It’s theatre as a truly communal experience.
Three million streams in a week for one show is something Netflix would be pretty happy about
This is really, really impressive. You can point to the fact that it’s a free service and a captive audience, but it is undeniable that in 2020 there are a lot of other things we could all be watching at any given time. I suspect three million streams in a week for one show is something Netflix would be pretty happy about.
It may be a bit of an outlier; One Man, Two Guvnors has a famous star (James Corden) and is well-known for a contemporary play, having toured the UK, the world and played multiple London seasons, not to mention its prior NT Live screenings.
As I write this, follow-up Jane Eyre hasn’t proven as popular, although it’s extremely relative and entirely expected. It’s closing in on one million, an audience that utterly dwarfs that of its physical run. It is kind of a miracle – theatre relentlessly talks the talk of access and being for the people, but ultimately it is heavily limited by geography and capacity. Conventional logic is that this is because people would prefer to watch something made explicitly as a TV show. But do they?
One play a week from the NT does not a golden age make, but it is, for instance, almost jaw-dropping that we’re living through a time in which you can see a play a night for free from the Schaubühne. Of course, most of us would prefer to be able to visit our parents. But during a time of lockdown it is a magnificent thing to have in our lives, and there’s vast amounts to see beyond that, from plays we missed or thought we might never see again, to a whole world of dance and opera.
Like I say, most of the rest of life is awful, and I think maybe one of the deceptively clever things about the initial NT at Home line-up is that while not the sexiest roster of shows NT Live has on its books, it’s all quite fun. We are all scared and exhausted and weirded out and the idea of trying to watch a landmark 20th-century German theatre production every night or having a Ring Cycle watching party at the end of a day filled with non-stop childcare and stressful home working is not entirely appealing.
One Man, Two Guvnors was an unintimidating play with an unintimidating star – escapism to cheer us up. A production of Hamlet... it’s a lot at the best of times. It will be interesting to see how we all feel about this in a month or two. But for now, theatre has entered our living rooms in a way we couldn’t have even imagined a month ago.