I read David Cunningham’s heartfelt analysis of his feelings about online theatre with interest and sympathy.
To set out my own credentials, as little as four weeks’ ago, I spent five consecutive nights wallowing in live stage entertainment as a very active critic.
Since then, I have been confined to my home, initially for a week in bed with what is almost certainly coronavirus and subsequently up and about but lacking energy, as the illness slowly releases my body from pain and exhaustion.
I trust that he will forgive me, if I paraphrase David’s arguments as follows.
- Nothing can compare with a live performance that is of itself unique.
- Watching a play on a computer screen or even a gigantic TV can never be as good as the real thing.
- He misses the communion of a shared experience with other theatregoers.
- He dislikes the canned laughter effect, even when this is coming from a real, recorded audience.
As an initial response, it is worth recalling some of the downsides of life theatre.
- Unless you are within walking distance of a particular theatre, at the end of a long evening, whether enjoyable or trying, it is never much fun having to fight your way out of a theatre and onto public transport (or back to a car that is probably not parked particularly conveniently) and wend your weary way home.
- I will confess that in my living room it is not unknown for the phone to go off but, especially recently, the prevalence of people texting, e-mailing, checking the racing tips and failing to silence their mobile phones has driven me to distraction. I know that I’m not alone.
- This is exacerbated when it comes to musicals, which are now apparently fair game for those who wish to film the whole of the performance.
- If I want to drink at home, I can make it myself or take it out of the fridge, thereby saving an astonishing amount of money and avoiding sometimes quite aggressive behaviour in bars during intervals.
In reality, I am also desperately missing my nightly fix of theatre, as much as anything for the camaraderie of chatting with critics on a regular basis and getting their views about plays that we have loved or hated.
The fact that every performance is unique becomes a big attraction too. You might be there on the night that the leading star gives his or her performance of a lifetime, the goat decides to relieve itself on stage or machinery breaks down and you’re still in the theatre at 11:15, with an 11:00 deadline.
An additional big attraction for the lucky few is the opening-night buzz, which cannot be matched. This can have its downsides with gushing luvvies, but overall, brushing shoulders with the great and the good and writing about a show before anybody else has done so is a privilege.
David has also failed to address the price of tickets. In the last week, I have enjoyed three operas from the Met. There is no question that watching an opera, even live in HD, is not the same as attending it in person.
However, given that I paid nothing for the equivalent to seats that would have set me back at least £1,000 (excluding flights and accommodation), should I be complaining? There are pros and cons. Even with the best seats at the theatre in Lincoln Center, you will not be able to see into the eyes of a diva. However, on screen you cannot fully appreciate the magnificent scope of a large-scale production.
Where is this leading? Without a doubt, David is absolutely right and, whether you are watching something created by the National Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House or a couple of kids with a couple of phones, the experience is never going to be as good as a night out in a real theatre.
However, it seems likely that this pleasure will not be available for several months. Even worse, we are currently stuck at home. Given the various entertainment alternatives, I would pick online theatre ahead of the vast majority of movies, almost every TV programme ever written and quite a few other possibilities.
As part of an armoury of options for getting through this difficult time, I would suggest that David and other sceptics give it a go; they might even surprise themselves.