Please Take Your Seats (In The Comfort Of Your Own Home)

Matthew Bird

There’s a special feeling when the houselights dim and the curtains lift. There’s a stirring in your stomach and a prickling of goosebumps as the orchestra performs the overture as a taste of what’s to come. The show is about to begin.

Sadly, the pandemic has led to many theatres closing, some indefinitely. To get this cultural buzz, audiences are turning to the internet. I have certainly delighted in watching plays put on YouTube for free by the National Theatre (including The Madness of George III filmed at the Nottingham Playhouse in Nottingham). Andrew Lloyd-Webber started the channel The Shows Must Go On! to which a different musical was streamed every weekend. Here I was finally able to watch Tim Minchin in Jesus Christ Superstar and enjoy the improved Australian production of Love Never Dies. The Met Opera are also streaming a different opera every day.

Unfortunately, both these channels have stopped uploading full productions. Though there are still plenty of ways to enjoy free streamed theatre. Digital Theatre+ and Drama Online are both accessible via your University of Nottingham login credentials. Both have an excellent range of shows. You don’t even need to have a screen to enjoy some theatre productions: LA Theatre Works produce full length audio dramas (I recommend Photograph 51).

I highly recommend the play A Disappearing Number by Complicité on DT+ about the mathematician Ramanujan. Drama Online is perfect for fans of the National Theatre as it has an extensive collection of their shows including Frankenstein (both productions with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Miller alternating as the Creature) and the hilarious One Man, Two Guvnors starring James Corden.

Of course, the real question is not about what is available, but whether streamed and recorded theatre is any good. How can it possibly live up to the sensation of watching something live?

To answer this, I think back to my first experience of streamed theatre. It was a pre-recorded performance of Miss Saigon played at the Savoy Cinema in Lenton. It had been a show I had wanted to see for a while and, at the time, there was no touring production and London was prohibitively far and costly. It blew me away. There was the benefit of a cinema sound system, but even without being in an actual theatre the recording was able to convey the emotion of the show.

The key is that streamed productions are not just static views of the stage from a distance. It is the merging of two media: film and theatre. The addition of a dynamic camera affords the audience closeups of sets and actors that even a front-row seat cannot.

A concern is that lockdown has exposed us to so much free streamed theatre that it will become the expectation that it will always be free

I would argue that streamed theatre and live theatre are totally different experiences. Where I was able to get extra emotion from camera closeups in Miss Saigon, the helicopter in the embassy scene is far more impressive live as you feel the three-dimensional nature of the helicopter going out over the front rows of the audience.

A concern is that lockdown has exposed us to so much free streamed theatre that it will become the expectation that it will always be free. Although having plays and musicals available for free has been an amazing substitute to live theatre, we should remember that theatres are unlikely to be able to offer them for free indefinitely.

Soho Theatre have an on-demand website through which many shows are available for just £4. For a while Phoebe Waller-Bridges Fleabag was available through this route, though it is unfortunately no longer available. For Shakespeare fans has productions available to rent for £4.99 (or own for £12.99).

Hamilton was filmed over two live performances with extra recording taking place on a different day so they could utilise even more camera angles. That and Newsies are both available on Disney+. Some shows have made their way to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I recommend using Thespie as a good place to start for searching for streamed theatre.

Though the home experience is good, the cinema experience of a streamed performance is even better. At a little over £10 for students it is perfect for trying out genres you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy. For instance, I had never seen an opera until a few years ago. I went to a Royal Opera House streamed performance at the cinema and found the genre to be much more approachable and enjoyable than I had expected. I’ve been to many more since.

Streamed theatre makes this vital part of our culture so much more accessible.

Lockdown has demonstrated people’s appetite for streamed theatre. I hope this desire remains even once the pandemic desists. Streamed theatre makes this vital part of our culture so much more accessible. Not everyone is local to a big London theatre, nor can everyone afford to buy increasingly extortionate tickets. By making theatre more accessible, new audiences will be introduced to incredible experiences.

Matthew Bird

Featured image courtesy of sampaist via Image license can be found here. 

Images courtesy of @misssaigonuk, @nationaltheatre and @bbcfleabag via

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