Last week I managed to catch a National Theatre Live screening of King Lear with Ian McKellen at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Its astounding to me that these things are not more popular. They do a great job of capturing the show with some details in close-up sh
ots that you could never hope to see from any seats (that we can afford) in the West End. These are the best moments for me: these tiny reactions each performer has with one another that feel like they could change every night with new eyes on them. You are watching the relationship between the actors, not the individuals themselves. The key differences between theatre and screen are how contrived work needs to be when shooting a film and how much can change in the editing suite as opposed to the volatility and surety of live theatre.
When watching a film you know, somewhere in the back of your mind, that everything has been very carefully placed in front of you to create the story and to guide you to the end. I feel this removes some of the connection with the performance. To be clear, I am in no way knocking the film industry. I love a good movie, but I get nowhere near the same level of connection as I do from live performances. You know that the shots in each scene need to be repeated from different angles and pieced together brilliantly by editors. So the rise in tension and build-up of their characters is lost on me a little. It makes me think of Bojack Horseman, campaigning for his Oscar for the film he was technically edited out of. How much do screen actors really owe their editors? Rarely are they given praise from the general audience yet everyone seems to realise their importance. A cast can give the performance of a lifetime but it is lost through a poor finished product.
This is what you don’t get in the theatre. For better or for worse, you have seen the performers go through their journey from start to finish. You feel like you have been through and discovered it with them all along, sharing in revelations, laughs, and heartbreak. Granted, there are definitely theatre directors specific and relentless enough to keep their product polished and identical, but we won’t talk about those people because they need to stop. The freedom for actors to play and the unpredictability of it all is what makes me want to go back to the theatre. Particularly in comedy, needing that license to go with the audience, seeking out what makes them giggle, and latching on to it for dear life is what keeps the show alive. Anyone working in comedy will tell you that the laughs never come where you think they will and the best performers are open enough to adapt to whatever their audience needs.
King Lear is the perfect example. It was originally staged in Chichester’s small space of 350 specifically to keep McKellen close to the audience, for them to be able to see everything he feels, and for him share it with them. During Lear’s wild descent into madness, you could enjoy McKellen playing with the character and with the audience while still feeling that live connection. This leads me back to my original point: how is this not more popular? The performances were so well captured and the atmosphere so alike to that of going to the theatre. When it comes to other recordings of live performances, it is only ever for music or sports. There are exceptions, of course, Saturday Night Live being a shining example of how good it can be, but it is still rare. I found myself surrounded only by the theatre people once again, wondering what it takes to get people to go out and see these amazing stories being broadcast. They have the opportunity to see hard working and dedicated performers at their work for a fraction of the price and all over the world.
Who knows, we might have some kind of Netplays soon and access to whatever theatre we like from the comfort of our bed, with all the loud snacks and commentary normally frowned upon by our fellow patrons.
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