“My dream,” says Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey, “would be to have The Plough and the Stars during Easter Week 2016 broadcast globally. It’s a no-brainer.”
Whatever about staging Sean O’Casey’s anti-heroic 1916 play at the Abbey during the centenary celebrations, broadcasting it globally? Just a few years ago, such an idea would have seemed nonsensical. As anybody who has ever videoed their drama group or school play knows, theatre invariably looks dreadful on camera: pallid, static, false. And what would it cost? And who would the audience be?
Suddenly, though, this is a very real prospect. Britain’s National Theatre broadcasts to more than 800 venues in over 30 different countries under its NT Live banner. Over 2.5 million people a year see broadcasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the pioneer in this field, earning the company $27 million, over a fifth of its annual revenue (and further income from its subscription streaming service).
Both programmes are now well established in Irish cinemas. On May 1, audiences around the country can see a live broadcast of the acclaimed National Theatre production of King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes (whose movies include Skyfall and American Beauty) and starring Simon Russell Beale.
The NT started its live broadcast programme for reasons idealistic rather than economic, as a way of greatly expending its reach beyond London. But it has proven to be a significant earner for the company.
For the night of the live broadcast, the theatre is effectively turned into a large television studio: the best seats are taken out to make room for up to eight cameras and equipment, such as cranes, so the cameras have freedom to capture the best shots – even if they get in the way of the theatre audience. They pay a reduced price and, like on the Late Late Show, become a part of the broadcast – their reactions are crucial to the event’s sense of intimacy and immediacy.
In some ways, the cinematic experience is superior – particularly for those who’ve ever chanced “cheap” tickets at the West End and found themselves behind a pillar a mile from the stage: the sound is perfect and the cameras zoom in to catch every nuance.
This may explain an extraordinary piece of research from the NT’s pilot broadcast in 2009, of Racine’s Phèdre: more of the cinema audience felt “totally absorbed” in the production than did the theatre audience (60% to 38%). (The Guardian’s Michael Billington agreed: it “worked even better in the cinema,” he thought.) Another intriguing finding was that the cinema audience had a substantially lower average income than the theatre one.
So might the Abbey attract international audiences to their local cinema for a broadcast of The Plough and the Stars, or any other production? It’s difficult to see a large-scale screening for an Abbey show, given that it doesn’t have the same international cachet. Having said that, the National Theatre has partnered with other British companies in broadcasts, and has partnered with the Abbey in stage productions. Perhaps an Abbey broadcast could be distributed and marketed within the NT Live banner, in order to maximise its reach.
The more obvious market for the Abbey (which, at this stage, is simply “in discussions” on the idea) is a niche one. As Fiach Mac Conghail notes, there has been “huge growth in Irish studies” as an academic discipline internationally, providing a potential audience in universities. Pay-per-view could be another option. Such a venture could be a money spinner for the Abbey. But – perhaps more importantly – it could bring the Abbey not just to an international theatre audience, but to an international Irish audience.
Seeing the Plough at the Abbey during the centenary Easter Week would have an undeniable emotional heft (though one that should be counterpointed by Mac Conghail with a contemporary production at the Peacock). But imagine seeing it in your local cinema in Luton, or Boston, or Melbourne. That would be not so much a no-brainer, as all heart.
(To check if your local cinema is screening King Lear on May 1, see http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/venues.)