There’s a specific image that comes to mind when one envisages the audience members occupying the plush red chairs of a theatre: older, upper-class couples who speak in received pronunciation; drop Latin phrases into every-day conversation; and holiday in the South of France, sit dispersed between younger, so-called members of the “liberal-elite” hailing from metropolitan cities – the common thread that runs between them all being the ability to overcome steep barriers of price and place.
This stereotype is by no means unfounded: professional theatre productions from Broadway to the West End are plagued by issues of accessibility that has lead theatre to be viewed as an art form that’s solely the domain of the wealthy few.
Theatre has, undoubtedly, been one of the hardest hit sectors during this pandemic. Indeed, Dame Helen Mirren herself called for the government to step in to ensure the sector’s future survival on the grounds that the theatre is central to the “identity of our nation” and “embedded in what it means to be British”. Her beliefs were quickly criticized by The Spectator, who pointed out that today, her view of the role of theatre was not, in fact, the case: less a national pastime, like queueing or arguing about where the North/South divide really is, and more a “decidedly middle-class affair”.
Never has the inaccessibility of theatre been more evident than in the case of Lin Manuel Miranda’s historical rap-musical Hamilton. If you wanted to witness the cultural phenomena during its 2017 run, you’d better have been able to fork out anywhere from $200 to $1,150 per ticket, in addition to travel costs to and from New York. On second thoughts, it might have been easier to simply become a founding father yourself than to be able to watch a musical about one. Hamilton highlighted the accessibility issues surrounding theatre with a bitter irony: it told the story of America, while outpricing the majority of Americans. Even after the original cast were phased out or the production was moved to the West End, ticket prices remained amongst the most expensive in theatre history.
However, from Friday the 3rd July, the barriers of price and place disintegrated as a 2016 recording of Hamilton was placed on the streaming platform Disney+ for the (relatively) low, low price of £5.99. The earlier-than-planned release onto the platform was due to the pandemic’s impact on the functionality of cinemas, where the recording was originally planned to be released next year for assumedly more than £5.99 a ticket if my local Odeon’s prices are anything to go by.
Disney have not been the only company to release recordings of live theatre. Britain’s own National Theatre have broadcast a myriad of fantastic plays for free onto their YouTube channel over the lockdown period, including the critically acclaimed One Man, Two Guvnors starring James Corden, and James Graham’s This House, to name but two.
Theatre presents a barrier to access quite unlike any other art form, but this nonetheless diminishes the importance of making it available to all sections of society. Theatre, for centuries, has presented society with a space for cultural analysis and discussion, an intimate forum for the dissection, understanding, and processing of the day’s socio-political questions. The political nature of Hamilton only highlights this important function of theatre as it provides a societal mirror with which one can contrast the dreams of the founding fathers with the current state of the union. Or, closer to home, This House presents its audience with the ability to gain an inside look at the absurdity of the British politicking: a fractured opposition, snap elections, and questions over Britain’s relationship to Europe in the play’s setting of the 1970s provides a lens with which to view the parliament of today; One Man, Two Guvnors, meanwhile, provides its audience with a comedic escape and brings the now-little-seen of broad farce to new audiences who might not otherwise have been exposed to it.
But, you may ask, why do we need theatre recordings when Hollywood retells the same stories for the silver screen? You may cite Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables or Rob Marshall’s Chicago as performing essentially the same function as their live theatre counterparts. To this, I answer that to watch a live theatre production (or, indeed, a stream of one) is a fundamentally different experience to watching a movie adaptation of a stage show. Perhaps, the most noticeable difference that occurs during the translation from stage to screen is the deployment of A-list celebrities in the place of trained musical theatre actors. This often has the unintended consequences of subjecting the audience to such astounding feats as Russell Crowe performing an entire sung-through musical with a range that amounted to a staggering total of two whole notes. While dubious achievements such as Crowe’s may have been unwillingly gained, so much more is lost: gone is the ingenuity of theatre set design, replaced with CGI nightmare fuel (well, at least in the case of the Boshcian catastrophe that was Hooper’s Cats); gone are the beads of sweat dripping off an actor’s face as they pant in exhaustion while the audience appreciatively roars at the end of a number; gone is the spit that flies out of the mouth of an actress delivering a particularly impassioned speech; and gone is the unintended break in an actors voice as they belt out the emotional climax of the show, edited out post-shoot to be replaced with second, third, or fourth takes in order to create a slick final cut. The spontaneous, the authentic – the live – is missing. No Hollywood adaptation, whatever its merits, can replicate or replace the intimate, real, and personal, experience of watching a live performance – or a recording of one.
As theatres in the UK and the rest of the world slowly start to set their plans for re-opening in motion, tentatively placing their first foot onto the uncertain and unknown ground of the post-pandemic theatre-scape, I encourage them to continue to release recordings of their plays, musicals, and operas when they have finished their runs, for their productions are a cultural currency irreplaceable but indispensable for societal reflection and comprehension – which for too long have been inaccessible to so many.
Perhaps, the example set by the National Theatre’s National Theatre Live project presents a fair and realistic compromise between increasing accessibility and securing financial stability for theatre productions. National Theatre Live is a ground-breaking project to broadcast world-class theatre to cinemas around the UK, decreasing the barrier of price and eradicating barriers of distance.
While the roads ahead for many theatres are uncertain, what is and always has been clear is that art should be accessible. While the pandemic has demonstrated a rather radical approach to abolishing barriers to access via free streaming and while, perhaps, the long-term solution may look a little different to this, we just might have edged ever closer to making Helen Mirren’s sentiment a realization and taken the first steps towards embedding theatre back into our national consciousness.