Since the coronavirus lockdown commenced, we’ve been bombarded with instructions, advice and things we should or could be doing, some of it useful, much of it patronising, some more to the benefit of those offering it than those for whom it is intended.

If we are just trying to get through it with ourselves and our families intact, healthy and educated rather than learning several new languages while refurbishing the house and garden, writing a novel, conducting Zoom quizzes and playing in an online orchestra, we are made to feel inadequate. Shakespeare almost certainly, despite the social media rumours, did not write the whole of King Lear while isolating from the Black Death (and any lockdown monologues he wrote haven’t survived, perhaps fortunately), so you don’t need to feel guilty about not having written King Lear II despite being stuck in the house since March.

The creativity of some of the responses to everything shutting down has been eye-opening, especially from out-of-work artists, musicians, writers and performers, enabled by modern technology and supported by venues and organisations who are also suffering financially from the closures. There is, you may have noticed, a lot of theatre available online at the moment, some of it new works, created specially to work on this intimate stage piped into our own homes, while a lot of it consists of recordings of varying quality, some recent and some delving back a few years, of past productions.

This has led Philip Fisher, in a recent feature, to speculate on what other gems may be lurking in theatre archives, and even to speculate on what he would like to see if the technology had been available throughout the history of theatre to preserve performances for us to see now. It’s an interesting notion and a great party game, but I can’t help feeling we should be a little cautious about what we wish for, and how we should approach viewing some of the older productions in particular should they come to light.

I remember visiting the Theatre Museum when it was in Covent Garden (now part of the V&A in Kensington) when they had a study room in the basement where, amongst its many physical resources, you could book a seat with a VHS player and TV to watch recordings of most major London productions going back several years. I assume these are still available somewhere, but even at the time they came with conditions and a warning that they were only to be viewed for research purposes, not as a replacement for seeing the same production in the theatre, and that trying to watch a whole production in this way could prove to be a bit of a chore.

These productions were recorded on VHS tape using a single, fixed camera covering the whole stage with no editing, panning or close-ups. This was not for financial or technological reasons, but because it was considered that a researcher or student would want to see the whole stage picture as though sat in the auditorium, not a series of shots chosen by a camera director or editor. A student of 1990s London theatre would find plenty of valuable material in those recordings I saw back then, but the average theatregoer wouldn’t choose to watch them for pleasure.

I teach on an online degree course with Rose Bruford College with students around the world, and for some of them, regular attendance at professional theatres isn’t possible for geographical or economic reasons, and so recordings of productions, whether online or on old-fashioned DVD or VHS, are useful. Now we are all in that situation due to the closure of the theatres, but, I warn my students, it isn’t the same as being there, and not just for the obvious reasons.

What you see on the screen is not what you see sat in an auditorium. A recording made to be watched, rather than just for archival purposes, will often use multiple camera angles, close-ups, zooms and pans dictated by the camera director and operators, giving you viewpoints that would be impossible for a live audience. This may bring you closer to the action at times, but a theatre director creates a whole stage picture, and focussing on one element means you could be missing lots of other things going on at the same time.

This doesn’t just apply to the visual aspects; often actors will be given microphones just for the video recording, and so the sound you hear on screen is mixed differently from that you would hear in the auditorium. One complaint I often hear about theatre recordings is that the actors are all shouting; they are still performing to a live audience, who wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but to a home or broadcast audience, the closely-miked dialogue projected to be heard at the back of a large theatre sounds odd. On the other hand, some recordings made with just a mic fixed to the camera are barely watchable as the dialogue can be difficult to interpret due to the room’s acoustics and background noise.

Then, of course, there is that hard to describe extra element of the live experience that we sometimes label ‘atmosphere’. There is something about being part of a large group of people and experiencing that group response of laughter, tears or stunned silence that is unrepeatable alone or in small groups through a screen. As any sports fan will tell you—what we used to call 'real fans', the ones who actually turn up to the ground every week rather than watching on a screen—TV coverage will show you far more than you could possibly see as a spectator in the crowd, but it's still not the same as being there. If you are examining a recording of a performance as a student or researcher, that element will always be missing, and you have to somehow allow for this in your analysis as part of the experience of watching this production as an audience member.

All of this applies to modern recordings, but what if we dig out some historical recordings and release them to a general public? Plays themselves come in and out of fashion and may contain references and jokes that are incomprehensible or morally reprehensible to an audience of a different age, but the same can apply to performance styles as well.

There are recordings of stage plays or parts of them going back to the era of the silent screen, but it would be too easy to look down on the art of a different era—and therefore on the audiences that enjoyed it—as unsophisticated compared to ours, but their experiences and expectations are merely different, not inferior. A fan of David Tennant’s Hamlet may not be at all impressed with Olivier’s interpretation, let alone Irving’s or Barrymore’s or Kean’s or Macready’s, but the reverse is probably also true. I remember an episode of BBC’s QI in which Stephen Fry was horrified when his guests ridiculed a rare recording of a performance by physical comedian Little Tich, hailed as a comic genius and a great artist in Victorian London by audiences and critics who would no doubt have had little praise for the QI guests’ acts.

Would the performances of David Garrick in the eighteenth century, hailed as bringing a new ‘natural’ performance style to Shakespeare, have seemed as natural even to Stanislavski, who was directing ‘naturalistic’ Chekhov more than a century later, let alone to an audience raised on ‘naturalistic’ cinema and television? Could a modern spectator feel anything of the extreme fear that there must have been at a performance of Richard II during the build-up to an armed rebellion against Elizabeth I (that resulted in several beheadings very soon after)? Would we now look at the riot by the audience against this new fashion of Romanticism at the première of Victor Hugo’s Hernani at the Comédie-Française in 1830 and wonder what all the fuss was about?

Having said that, as someone with a great interest in theatre and theatre history, of course there are many moments that I would love to be able to witness, but with the eye of an academic researcher rather than a regular audience member—although, who knows, maybe some would work perfectly for a modern audience. I’d love to see whether the first night of Romeo and Juliet was anything like it was portrayed in Shakespeare in Love. Were the Greeks rolling in the aisles at Aristophanes having a dig at the officials on the front row or in tears at the fate of Oedipus, or were they more interested in the songs and dances that are often left out of gloomy modern productions? How good really were the renaissance boy actors for whom some of the greatest ever roles for actresses were originally written?

It would be fascinating to see Charles Laughton and Bertolt Brecht’s collaboration on Life of Galileo in 1947 as well as Helene Weigel in Mother Courage (which was made available for a short while this month by the Berliner Ensemble in a blurry black and white recording without English subtitles), or Antonin Artaud’s disastrous attempt at staging Shelley’s The Cenci, or the opening of Showboat, or Richard Burbage as the original Hamlet and Lear and as the title role in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet in 1899 (female Hamlets are far from new), or those early performances of Ibsen’s controversial A Doll’s House and Ghosts, the latter described in The Daily Telegraph when it arrived in England as “an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly”.

Theatre is an ephemeral art form, each performance unique and recreated anew. Once it is recorded, it is frozen in time, and not the time of the people who will be watching it, and so it should viewed with some consideration for the original context or it could prove disappointing to watch. But if scientists did find a way for us to truly see back in time, I’m not sure I’d be able to resist a peek back to seventeenth-century London, or Athens in the fifth century BCE, or Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 and a few other times, but I couldn’t guarantee I’d understand or appreciate as fully as the original audience just what I was seeing.