Is televising theatre a good thing?

Helen Mirren in Phaedre

With the announcement that David Tennant’s Hamlet is to be televised for BBC2 we ponder the question: is televising theatre a good thing?

Tennant enjoyed enormous critical and audience acclaim for his performance of the Danish Prince for the RSC, both in Stratford and, briefly, in the West End until a serious back problem caused him to pull out.

Gregory Doran, who directed the RSC version, wants to reunite the cast and create a film version of the production.

This comes alongside the National Theatre’s NT Live programme, which sees live theatre broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world. It kicks off with a biggie – Phedre starring Helen Mirren, broadcast to over 50 cinemas on 25 June.

Given that few people actually had an opportunity to see David Tennant in Hamlet, and that Phedre completely sold out in a few days, the idea of taking live performance outside the confines of a theatre has the opportunity to vastly widen its audience. Theatre is intrinsically elitist – it costs a lot to attend and is very location specific. By turning to cinema and TV, you reduce the expense and vastly expand potential audiences.

But is something lost? The magic of seeing live theatre cannot be recreated on screen. And it’s a vastly different medium. Some of the most boring TV and cinema happens when you simply take a static theatre piece and point some cameras at it. Far from inspiring new generations of theatregoers it could actually confirm their worst suspicions – that theatre is slow and uneventful and nothing compared to the breadth and scope of the best movies and tele.

Bringing TV and film stars such as Tennant and Mirren into theatre has to be a good thing for everyone. But doing a neat back-flip and putting the TV star in a play on TV could backfire. Here’s a wild, off-the-wall idea: maybe these stars could tour their plays to other places than Stratford and London? For centuries stage stars spent the majority of their time performing in front of audiences across the UK – feeling a strong sense of loyalty to the millions of people who wanted to see them perform live. What happened to that?

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📷 Main photo: With the announcement that David Tennant's Hamlet is to be televised for BBC2 we ponder the question: is televising theatre a good thing?

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