Turning twenty in lockdown was not my plan, but if there’s one thing that this pandemic has made me more grateful for, it’s the technology available to us, helping us through, keeping us as connected as possible in our separate homes. As an example of this, to pass the evening of my birthday, we set up a projector in the living room and streamed the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre (then on YouTube) with a glass of prosecco and the lights turned down.
A large part of the theatre-going experience comes from the room full of people. Hundreds go into the auditorium, and they always come out having been united by one story. At home, when it is just you and your family/housemates, it’s always going to be a more insular and detached experience. There is a sense of shared adrenaline for the actors, of being connected with strangers, which was lost somewhat in the translation from a live play to recorded, and from an audience of hundreds, to one of five (chatting!) family members. That said, the way that these productions are filmed intends to capture as much of the theatre experience as possible, and still being able to see and hear the reactions of the live audience, whose chatter died out as the lights went down, and whose moments of laughter were captured, really contributed to the feeling of socialising and interconnectedness that theatre usually brings. I found myself watching and considering the audience while enjoying the play itself.
Techniques of theatre acting and on-screen acting differ greatly, and streamed theatre seems to combine the two. A camera will view the action in a way that was not intended, different angles evoking a much more cinematic feel. This is both a negative and a positive thing, allowing audiences to see the more nuanced characterisation that the actors display and yet, although these actors were acting to be seen from a distance and this production was never intended for close-ups, it somehow doesn’t seem melodramatic. Far from distracting from the story and lessening its impact, YouTube theatre is just a different way of watching a story take place.
The decision of London theatres to make a selection of their productions available online seems to go some way towards epitomising the new ‘at home-interconnectedness’ of these tricky times. It is a different way of receiving a story, and seems rather meta-theatrical at times, a synthesis of the theatrical, cinematic and literary. However, National Theatre Live, which would ordinarily stream London productions into local cinemas, has always seemed a wonderful thing to me as a drama student and lover of story-telling. On-screen productions make the (often elitist) world of theatre accessible to a wider demographic. To have plays of this standard available in our own living rooms, largely for free, is a brilliant way of ensuring that everyone can experience theatre’s magic and retain some semblance of the reality we have temporarily lost. As a token of human kindness alone, this is not to be missed.