WHAT do you like to watch on your smartphone or tablet? The latest Netflix blockbuster? A niche arthouse movie from your Mubi subscription? How about that hot new theatre show everyone is talking about but is impossible to see because it’s sold out? Yep, now you can watch that too.
Just as Netflix and Amazon Prime revolutionised TV and movie watching, Digital Theatre is hoping to do the same with its newly launched subscription service. Rather than gnash teeth over having missed Maxine Peake as Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, you can now watch her at home instead.
A monthly payment of £9.99 gives you access to more than 65 theatre, ballet, opera and contemporary dance productions, and the number of available productions is growing all the time.
‘It gives people who might never even have been to the theatre a chance to watch great shows from world-class companies,’ says Digital Theatre chairman Justin Cooke. ‘We can give people the best seats at the Royal Opera House — seats that [at up to £200] are financially beyond the reach of many — whether they are at home or on a train.’
Watching recorded theatre shows is hardly a new phenomenon: NT Live has been streaming live broadcasts for National Theatre productions into cinemas for years, while Digital Theatre was set up eight years ago by theatre director Robert Delamere as an online digital theatre archive. What’s different, believes Delamere, is that people’s attitudes to how they access online content has changed.
‘When we started Digital Theatre, which was before Netflix came into being, audiences could access our shows via individual downloads,’ he says. ‘We were using cutting-edge technology but in quite a clunky way. Now the subscription model feels a very familiar way for people to consume their culture.’
Buying a subscription rather than downloading makes financial sense. You can rent Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet in the 2012 West End production of All My Sons for £7.99, or see it and whatever else you want in a month for £9.99 — ‘the price of a couple of cups of coffee’, as Cooke puts it. To put it another way, nine months’ access clocks in at the top price of a stalls seat for Hamilton. That’s assuming you can even get a seat for Hamilton. (Cooke and Delamere don’t want to confirm that Hamilton will appear on the site at some point but one can only presume they’re working on it.)
Cooke and Delamere are well versed in the arguments against watching recorded versions of live performance. Critics argue that the very DNA of ballet, theatre and opera is in the fact you experience it as it happens, not several years later, alone on your sofa. Some even point out that there is a meaningful beauty in the way a theatre or opera production only exists in the flesh for a limited amount of time. Yet both believe that Digital Theatre is a complement to live performance, not a replacement.
‘We ensure our recorded version, which we film live using at least eight cameras over two or three performances, involves the audience that was there at the time,’ says Delamere. ‘There is something special about the relationship between a performer and the audience that we want to retain.’
Moreover, Delamere argues that seeing a performance on your smartphone can make you want to see it again on stage. ‘When we put Things I Know To Be True by Frantic Assembly on our platform, so many people loved it, the show was able to come back to the Lyric Hammersmith the following year,’ he says.
The company plans to add 50 more productions over the next six months. So if you are looking for a Christmas present for the culture buff in your life, this might just be it.
Top Five: Digital theatre shows to see
A Doll’s House
2012, Young Vic, London
Carrie Cracknell gave Ibsen’s protofeminist classic a modern edge in this sparkling production, which played out on an endlessly spinning revolve stage. Starring Hattie Morahan, it transferred to New York in 2014.
2011, Liverpool Everyman
David Morrissey starred as the Scottish king in this acclaimed revival of Shakespeare’s bloody masterpiece, directed by Gemma Bodinetz.
2013, Arts Theatre, London
This 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey’s seminal gay play about two men from a south London estate falling in love starred Suranne Jones.
2014, Trafalgar Studios, London
Richard Eyre’s pitch-perfect revival of another Ibsen, this one starring the impeccable Lesley Manville as Helene Alving.
Iphigenia in Splott
2015, North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford
Gary Owen’s reworking of the classic Greek myth was a big hit for Welsh theatre company Sherman Cymru. It later transferred to London.