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What’s live theatre really like at the cinema?

More of us than ever are watching theatre, opera and ballet beamed live into cinemas. But can it really match the thrill of being there?

Twelfth Night, Tamsin Greig, National Theatre
Image: Andy Parsons
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Shakespeare with a side order of popcorn. Russian ballet on the big screen. Live opera at your local Vue. Over the past few years, thousands of us have sat down in cinemas to watch performances as they’re streamed live on to the big screen. It’s called ‘event cinema’ and it accounts for 3 percent of all box office returns in the UK – 20 percent in some cinemas.

The National Theatre is leading the revolution. Over the last seven years, 6.5 million people have watched its productions in cinemas around the world – beamed from an unassuming satellite truck parked on a side street on the South Bank. To find out what all the fuss is about, I pop into a dress rehearsal for the broadcast of its latest show: ‘Twelfth Night’, starring Tamsin Greig.

I ask Greig – who stars as gender-flipped housekeeper Malvolia (usually a male servant, Malvolio) if she’s jittery about the cameras recording her performance for eternity. ‘Yes. It’s nerve wracking, and exciting,’ she says. ‘But it’s the first time Malvolia has been female, so it’s great to know there is a film which can be seen for many years.’ Camera director Robin Lough is also here. For weeks he’s been mapping out shots for the six cameras that will be positioned in the best seats in the house. The crew hides mics in hairdos and props. (Two watery scenes are giving the sound supervisor nightmares.)

Twelfth Night at the National TheatreImage: Andy Parsons

‘The crew hides mics in hairdos and props’

So does all that meticulous planning pay off? On the night of the broadcast, I watch the first half at the National’s Olivier Theatre. It’s fresh and funny, and Greig is brilliant. I want to stay, but as soon as the lights come up for the interval I dash out to watch the second half at the Vue cinema in Leicester Square. A G&T in the bar would have been more relaxing than a little interval cardio, but I make it, missing only a word or two.

Once I’ve caught my breath, the contrast is startling. At the National, the stage is viewed from all angles but at a distance. The camera’s vantage point is much more intimate: rather than letting your eyes wander across the stage, the lens holds tight to what it wants you to focus on. Up close to the actors’ faces, you can see the details of their expressions, the creases around their eyes. The atmosphere is different too. While the theatre audience chortled and applauded, the cinema remains silent (although I get the sense it would only have taken one person to laugh out loud for the rest of us to join in).

Twelfth Night at the National TheatreImage: Andy Parsons

‘As the lights come up for the interval I dash out to watch the second half at the cinema’

In the early days of event cinema actors were nervous about close-ups, says camera director Lough: ‘In the beginning they were suspicious. Stage make-up looks daft in high-definition.’ But most of them have come round. Benedict Cumberbatch, whose ‘Hamlet’ was one of NT Live’s biggest hits, has praised live broadcasts for making theatre accessible. ‘His mother-in-law telephoned from a cinema in Glasgow to tell him how good it was,’ says Lough.

‘There is a real sense of event,’ says Emma Keith, head of broadcast at NT Live. I’d agree. The livestream is unlike anything else I’ve seen in the cinema. I can really see why screenings like this have been pulling in the crowds – making sold-out plays available to those of us who missed out on or couldn’t afford tickets. In fact, I would recommend watching half in the theatre and half in the cinema – if it wasn’t for the mad sprint in the interval.

Five theatre shows coming soon to a cinema near you... 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadImage: Manuel Harlan

‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire star in the Tom Stoppard play, broadcast by NT Live from the Old Vic. Apr 20

‘Julius Caesar’
Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, the thrilling and bloody tragedy opens the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season. Apr 26

‘Der Rosenkavalier’
The Met Opera’s current season nears its close with Strauss’s grandest work, livestreamed from New York. May 13

‘The Dream/Symphonic Variations/Marguerite and Armand’
The Royal Ballet celebrates its seventieth birthday in this live broadcast from The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Jun 7

‘Angels in America’
Starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey, the hotly anticipated production of Tony Kushner’s multi-award winning two-part play will be livestreamed in two parts from the National Theatre. Jul 20 and 27

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Read our review of ‘Twelfth Night’

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