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July 22, 2013 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Theatre on Film – National Theatre Live’s Recording of The Audience

I could wax lyrical for a whole page about The Audience. It is not hard to see how a play written by Peter Morgan (who wrote the film The Queen) about Queen Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with her Prime Minister is worthy of its five-star reviews. Starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II at an astonishing myriad of ages—from her first year of reigning to last year—it is a succinct, interesting play that is an absolute pleasure to behold.

But I do not intend to extol its many virtues here. There was something more interesting about this theatrical experience: while I watched it in a theatre, it was a movie theatre.

Stage performances have been filmed and played in our cinemas for a few years now, the Met Opera starting what is a growing trend. National Theatre Live is in its fourth year of broadcasting and has recently reached our shores. With several cameras placed throughout the theatre, the footage is then edited together and sent to cinemas around the world.

Like a geriatric tentatively buying an iPhone, I sat in trepidation at my local independent cinema. The camera swept over the real audience, seated in the London’s Gielgud Theatre, the lights dimmed and, like something from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Geoffrey the Butler took the stage to guide us through the next two-and-a-half hours of theatrical magic.

Having the different camera angles take in the whole of the stage was excellent, as you got so much closer to the action than even people in the best seats could have (and for only $20!) It was cinematic in the way that whole people—rather than the whole stage—were, at times, the sole focus of the audience’s field of vision, yet there was restraint shown – no facial close-ups here. The problem with this miraculous zoom capacity was that some nuances of holistic scenes were lost – Mirren’s costume and age changes were often cleverly performed onstage, and thus the audience were deprived of some real theatrical illusions.

Having an actual audience in the playhouse and hearing their laughter, gasps and spontaneous applause left in the edit worked better than expected. It created the atmosphere of a theatre. It was not like the canned laughter of television sitcoms but appropriate for the jokes – and there were quite a few. The applause that erupted at the end of a particularly brilliant scene, such as the showdown between Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher, helped to recreate the aura of live spontaneity that is part of the theatrical experience. Continuing with the idea of theatrical authenticity, there was also a short interval.

Watching a play on a screen was much more enjoyable than expected and proves that if a play is good enough, you do not have to be there for it to be effective. National Theatre has also been commercially canny and kind to us in broadcasting great British theatre to the world. They also have some appealing Shakespeares coming and the much-lauded version of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. So, theatre purists: save your money on that flight to London and head to your local cinema instead.

The Audience is on now at all Lighthouse cinemas and Penthouse, Brooklyn. Student tickets $20.

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  1. Di Bellamy says:

    An outstanding theatre experience .. the writing was inspired .. witty .. insightful .. the acting brilliant .. the set design & costumes wonderful .. sharing it with a live audience.. albeit a few months later was incredible .. in total .. soul satisfaction .. you come away hungry for more yet aware that you’ve been completely satisfied ..

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