Saving Lockdown: National Theatre at Home and the Future of Audience Engagement

National Theatre at Home (by Richard Hubert Smith, Johan Persson, Catherine Ashmore and Tristram Kenton)

Hero and villain, roles the National Theatre finds itself cast in again and again, often at the same time; its name and funded status as a nationwide theatre means that while its tours and community-developed pieces such as A Taste of Honey and the Theatre Nation Partnerships are often feted, its London programme announcements often meet a tide of denunciation, as the failure to represent diversity or to adequately balance its schedule of classic and new work comes under fire. During lockdown, the National Theatre has been lambasted for announcing front of house staff redundancies in spite of an (as yet) unclear portion of the government fund. Given, the NT’s position and mission at the forefront of UK theatre, it is not unreasonable that such public scrutiny should be applied to its creative decision-making and financial management.

Yet, the National Theatre has also been a lockdown saviour, the first to offer archive content via a Youtube channel that allowed its productions to be viewed almost anywhere in the world. And all for free. We flocked to it, 15 million views in 173 countries, an inestimable reach that will open all kinds of debates about the democratisation of theatre. Four months on and audiences are now taking online streaming for granted, spoiled by the volume of material available across the arts from theatre to dance, opera and concert performances, to fringe, pub theatres, regional venues and major West End playhouses. Arguably, the National Theatre’s March announcement set the bar for theatre engagement during lockdown, a time when no one imagined closure would last this long.

16 weeks later, the National has shared 16 productions with its community, a collective viewing reach of millions of individuals around the world. The decision to call time on the National Theatre at Home scheme is sad but reasonable, online theatre cannot be free forever and now is a suitable time to reflect on the choice of productions, how selections changed as a longer period of lockdown became clear and what this new method of outreach could mean for future theatre engagement with its audiences.

This is not the first time that the National Theatre has been at the forefront of a period of disruptive innovation, one that doom-mongers warned could signal the end of live theatre. Established in 2009, NT Live has radically transformed the cultural landscape, ushering in a golden age of accessibility for UK audiences unable to travel to, and crucially even afford, West End prices. There are schemes enough to ensure low priced ticket allocations but the additional cost of travel, accommodation, food and sustenance can make the journey to London a prohibitive one. NT Live did away with all that, opening-up the experience of theatre to a much wider community through partnerships with and relays to the cinema screen.

It can be  divisive, many will insist that nothing can replicate the feeling of live theatre, of being in the room. And, feeling the atmosphere alter around you can be a magical experience. But, as the National Theatre at Home screenings have reminded us, the growing technical skill of the NT Live camera crew and directors have brought audiences as close as they can, providing viewing angles or close-proximity visuals unavailable to the live audience – Danny Boyle’s exciting overhead camera-work for Frankenstein (Week 5) is a case in point. Equally, anyone who has experienced the same show in both forms can attest to the expertise of the NT Live team – the screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, held a power that enraptured cinema audiences in February  who were equally thrilled by it, the silver screen enhancing the experience with technical choices and shot selection that created intense, slow close-ups which understood and expanded on the underlying purpose Lloyd’s interpretation.

Programming the Season 

The first announcement came in March, with the hugely successful One Man, Two Governors opening the season; it was truly event theatre as a million people tuned in within the first 24-hours, a feeling of commonality stretching between laptops across the country as we all switched on at 7pm that Thursday night, together apart. Three more shows – Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night would follow, shows that were enjoyable but not quite in the top tier of National Theatre productions. Then as a Spring and Summer of theatre closures loomed the National Theatre got serious.

Huge announcements of high profile productions followed, showcasing some of the very best work of the last decade – Frankenstein was a marvel offering both versions in the same week, the ripple of excitement that accompanied the news that The Barbershop Chronicles (Week 7), A Streetcar Named Desire (Week 8), This House (Week 9) and Coriolanus (Week 10) would provide a glorious mid-season high, and as the Black Lives Matters protests dominated debate, a more diverse final show selection from The Madness of King George III (Week 11) to Small Island (Week 12) the smouldering brilliance of The Deep Blue Sea (Week 15) and the joyous strangeness of Amadeus (Week 16) – a fitting conclusion that revealed the operatic grandeur of the Olivier Theatre and the huge resources of the National deployed in music, costume, direction and performance.

Across the 16 weeks we have seen four Shakespeare plays and seven contemporary plays, new at the time of recording. The vast majority of them came from NT Live captures while The Barbershop Chronicles was an archive recording in the Dorfman, seven were set before and four during the twentieth-century with five in modern or timeless locations. There were five comedies, two American playwrights and four book adaptations. We were transported to Ancient Egypt and Rome, a 1950s boarding house, eighteenth-century courts, 1970s Westminster, the nineteenth-century Yorkshire moors, colonial Africa, magical woodlands, a sultry apartment in New Orleans and the seaside all without leaving our bedrooms. We laughed at pseudo-1950s farce, became swept up in wars of oppression and conquest, shed tears for grand lovers, ruined musicians, tragic monarchs and caged women while rejoicing at the humanity of it all. This is the power of theatre and it was all completely free.

The Future of Theatre Engagement

So how does all of this affect what we might see in the future. Certainly in the short-term, the industry may adopt a hybrid model with performances happening live in socially distant theatre spaces as with the forthcoming Jesus Christ Superstar concert and the new Sleepless in Seattle musical, while others will continue to pursue the creation of new digital content either through live relay as the Old Vic’s In Camera series is pioneering, or as films created under lockdown conditions and streamed to Youtube.

Perhaps there is even a way for the two to come together, a socially distanced audience for those who can and feel comfortable attending a live performance with a limited run which could also be streamed online via a pay-wall – exactly how a National Theatre Live evening usually works where the cameras are arranged so as not to impede the viewer in the room but take the show to hundreds of cinema screens, or in this case laptops, across the UK.

But, the real impact of National Theatre at Home has been to change our relationship with venues and the creative forces behind each show. The first cast reunion happened in response to One Man Two Guvnors, a 30-minute chat on 7 April that has been viewed 145,000 times. The idea was replicated down the months, Twelfth Night  (Week 4) and Antony and Cleopatra (Week 6) soon followed, while both Small Island and Les Blancs (Week 14) held panel sessions on the issues raised in both plays, helping them to respond to the changing social climate in which the screenings were now taking place.

The concept really took off in Week 10, when the National Theatre opened-up its offering to include shows recorded in other venues. Director Josie Rourke and lead Tom Hiddleston provided a live Instagram commentary with contributions from other cast members throughout the 2.5 hour runtime of Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Later uploaded to Youtube, it proved a fascinating conversation with insight into the decision-making process as Rourke and Hiddleston’s wide-ranging discussion covered literary aspects of the text, the classical context of Ancient Roman society and the technical elements of building a character, stage design and physical movement that fed into the performance. A 30-minute post-show discussion also available on the National Theatre’s Youtube channel has been watched more than 86,000 times while the Bridge Theatre’s anecdote-filled A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Week 13) cast reunion has had almost 40,000 views.

Video trailers and talking heads have long been part of theatre promotional strategies but filmed post-show discussions may have more traction or could even replace the rather stale content in the traditional programme. If audiences want to understand more about a production buying a programme will only tell you so much with venues retaining a decades-old approach – a couple of academic essays on the play’s origins or themes, usually a chronological life of the author and the creative team biographies. In 2020, if a theatre-goer wants an essay on the themes of Hamlet or the defiance of Noel Coward, the Internet can provide all your needs, what it can’t tell you is why particular production decisions were made.

These cast reunion and live commentary videos tell us that thousands of people want to know more about the specific choices creatives make in bringing their version of a play to life; why did the director and designer want to set Julius Caesar in a 1970s carpet warehouse, by what process does an actor in the cast build their role using the text, knowledge of past performance, socio-political experience of the era and instinct, and what are the challenges of lighting a moody Sondheim musical in a space as large as the Olivier Theatre? A modern programme should help to translate these choices to the audience, putting the creative teams we all admire at the centre of theatre outreach, their work does not begin and end in the performance space. And it needn’t just be digital content, programme essays could come from costume or set designers explaining how a character’s style and fabric choices respond to the themes of the play or how soundscaping is used across the show to mark changes in the emotional rhythm of the story.

From The Grinning Man to the cast of Smash during lockdown Zoom discussions have almost become the norm, a chance to relive the excitment of seeing the show but also to understand more about the process of making it. These activities are the equivalent of DVD extras for theatre lovers and the future of theatre engagement has to be in reaching out across the fourth wall, something modern audiences are clearly hungry for. This closure period has given us a renewed appreciation for the writers, directors, technical specialists, performers and musicians that make theatre for us, so forget the dry academic essays because it is their skill in interpreting and reimagining stories for us that we really want to read about. The National Theatre really did save lockdown and made us appreciate our phenomenal creative industries, but they may also have inadvertently pointed the way for the future as surely as National Theatre Live did in 2009.

National Theatre at Home ran from 02 April to 23 July 2020. Cast reunion and other videos are available on National Theatre Youtube Channel. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 600 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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