Alastair Michael reflects on the challenges of broadcasting theatre to cinema audiences on his trip to see War Horse at Manchester’s Odeon.

War Horse has been one of the National Theatre‘s most successful productions of all time. Since its original performance in 2007, it has barely been out of theatres and has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic. The stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel has captured the imagination of more than five million people in five countries as culturally diverse as China and Germany. And, if you didn’t catch it in a theatre in either Beijing or Berlin, you can see it at a cinema near you.

The NT Live venture began back in 2009 with Helen Mirrens’s Phèdre. Spearheading those first tentative steps into theatre broadcasting for the National Theatre was an intern by the name of David Sabel. It is an indication of that initial project’s success that Sabel is now the theatre’s head of digital. Recently, NT Live broke its UK audience record with a screening of Alan Bennett’s People. Around 65,000 people saw the show in UK cinemas. At 94,000, the total worldwide audience for one broadcast was more than 80 times larger than the capacity of the South Banks’s Olivier theatre. So it would be difficult to deny Sabel his promotion.

But the success of NT Live has come as a surprise. Following in the footsteps of the Met Opera, which pioneered the idea of live stage broadcasting, nobody knew whether the format would work for theatre.

Helen-Mirren-and-Dominic--001Pointing a camera at a play can be problematic. Even the greatest show could lose its magic on screen: the acting is big, the lighting harsh, the make-up bold, the staging theatrical. All this could perpetuate a perceived pomposity about theatre when captured by the detached eye of the camera.

The greatest concern, however, is translating theatre to screen without losing its immediacy. It helps that it is live and so remains theatrical rather than polished and edited like film. And, in the recent cinema screening I saw of War Horse, there was no danger of forgetting that everything was happening live with some not so subtle focal adjustments and a couple of awkward edits.

Effective editing seems integral to the success of broadcast theatre because, luckily, the National Theatre is not content with just one camera watching the action statically; for the big spectacles cameras shoot from below or swing widely across the stage to communicate the grandeur of War Horse’s staging but, for more intimate moments, close-ups and narrow framing are employed.

Often these close shots are little theatrical treats for the broadcast audience. War Horse’s showstoppers are the equine puppets, designed by the Handspring Puppet Company. The auditorium audience can appreciate the sheer scale of these puppets which might be lost on a silver screen where everyone is 12 feet tall, but it is the cinema audience who can perceive every sinew of puppet and puppeteer.

A ripple of laughter from a small section of the auditorium audience is heard easily by their cinema counterparts. Something funny happened, but it was elsewhere on stage. It is admirable that NT Live does not shy away from acknowledging its audience. They can be seen and heard which creates a shared experience. But, in this instance, we did not share this moment with our theatre-bound counterparts because the camera was close in.

When a theatre audience sits down in the cinema they surrender something: their freedom over the stage. At the theatre, in the auditorium, eyes can roam freely taking in every background detail or watching the silent actor, but in the cinema it is the camera which direct the gaze.

War HorseIt is still theatre though. Much like football is still football when watched on TV, the cameras follow the ball. Despite the close-ups and editing, NT Live is not filmic either. Film directors can capture vast solar systems in one moment and in the next record the minute movement of a grain of sand. NT Live cannot achieve this same visual freedom because it is limited to the stage –  but with War Horse Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have created such an absorbing piece of theatre that this hardly seems to matter.

Nevertheless, there is a new layer of direction over that of Elliott and Morris’s for the NT Live broadcast. With a new digital theatre audience, an artistic role has been established that occupies a space between film and theatre. Creative Broadcast Solutions, whose impressive track-record includes royal events and state affairs, seems to have led the way in the field, but my search for  individual directors’ names for previous shows proved fruitless. Hopefully, as the success and scope of live stage broadcasting grows, it will not be long before broadcasting directors are given due public recognition for their artistic contributions.

Meanwhile, NT Live continues to grow. In cinemas across the UK – and the world – audiences have access to the National’s repertoire without having to be in London. Arguably, the venture has further cemented the National Theatre’s reputation as the nation’s theatre by making a concerted effort to include people across the country. In the process, the National has made its own productions ubiquitous and turned creations like War Horse’s Joey into national treasures. The company could be looking at more record-breaking audience numbers for NT Live when Sam Mendes’ King Lear broadcasts in May. An award-winning director of movies has directed a piece of theatre that will be broadcast to cinemas across the globe. It is set up to be the ideal blend of theatre and film and, appropriately, it will be coming to a movie theatre near you.

By Alastair Michael 


What: NT Live – War Horse

Where: The Odeon, The Printworks, Manchester

When:  Feb 27, 2014

More info:

War Horse returns to The Lowry in Salford in Summer 2014. For details click here