Theatre on film: Live theatre… Recorded

Whenever the credits roll and the lights come on at the end of a film, I never stop to watch who the best boy was, or who sang that opening track. Instead, I love to watch the audience.

Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre's Frankenstein
Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s Frankenstein

I like to see their initial reactions; the satisfying stretches after two hours well spent, or the confused ‘but wait…so did he do it or not?!’. But recently, I was privy to a most unusual audience reaction. I was in a 200 seater cinema, and as the screen faded black and the closing music whirled in, the whole audience stood up and clapped. They were clapping light projected onto a flat screen that just moments earlier formed the shapes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s theatre adaptation of Frankenstein.

The show was astounding and certainly deserved a standing ovation. But as I sat in a sea of coat tails and theatre dresses, I couldn’t help but cynically contemplate the futility of clapping a theatre production on a big screen.

It’s an exciting time for cinema programmers as more and more inventive styles of entertainment are hitting our screens. One of the most recent successes has come from the live exhibition of West End theatre performances, a government supported initiative to share the culture of London with the rest of the UK. One of the biggest supporters of this cultural dispersion is the National Theatre who record fantastic stage shows such as Alan Bennett’s People and beam them live via satellite to cinemas all across the country.

Of course, there are many who suggest that the majesty and power of live theatre can never be experienced on a big screen. In a digital age where we can replicate anything Christopher Nolan’s mind could possibly fathom onto film, we now sit placid as Bane brings an entire football stadium to the ground. So when ‘live spectacle’ shows such as Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D use massive physical stunts to amaze us, a cinema audience may sit unimpressed and a bit bothered by the wires.

Naturally, a cinema screening allows the audience clarity of the cast that would trump the theatre’s own front row seats, but it can never replace the raw, intimate atmosphere you get when seeing a show live. This became very apparent to me recently as I saw a hundred people watching a Led Zeppelin concert in complete silence.

I’m certainly in favour of West End becoming so accessible to everyone; after all, theatre is just film before celluloid. But whilst we wait for audiences to decide whether to clap at the end or not, let’s not forget how awesome it was to see Magneto and Charles Xavier do Waiting for Godot live.

Sam Bishop

Sam Bishop is manager of The Electric cinema in Birmingham – the UK’s oldest working cinema.


The Electric Birmingham
National Theatre Live
RSC Live

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👤 📅28 May 2013
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📷 Main photo: Sam Bishop on a cinema revolution for theatre

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