Let’s look at last summer’s RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, for example. I saw the ‘real’ production first, and the live screening about a month later. In my opinion, the live screening wasn’t quite as good because you couldn’t feel the full effect of all of the fantastic dramatic tension created; this particular production had a very reflective set (quite literally - it was shiny!) and I don’t think you could have really appreciated that unless you had seen it in Stratford prior to the screening. On the other hand, having a live screening does give you the opportunity to see the actors’ faces up close - until I saw the screening, I hadn’t given enough thought to how talented Makram J. Khoury and Jamie Ballard were, especially in the more high-octane scenes, but this was something that was really nicely shown off by the live broadcast.
A recent event from across the pond, which I feel I should mention is Grease: Live, which aired on Fox and ITV earlier this year. It was the perfect combination of the movie and the stage musical, and filmed completely live. It was a completely different feeling to watching a ‘real life’ musical, but it still had the fun atmosphere that Grease should, through the huge use of social media to promote it in the run up to the show. This relatively new idea of a ‘TV musical’ is a challenge that, over the past few years, has been brilliantly taken on by NBC, Fox and ITV - and all three channels have said that they plan to do more in the future.
So is digital theatre the future, then? In my opinion, the answer is no; while digital broadcasts are great for people who live further away from New York or London or perhaps can’t afford the trip, for me nothing can ever beat the feeling of sitting in a theatre before a show, with the audience chattering and the orchestra warming up - that feeling and atmosphere is part of the magic of theatre, and the magic of theatre is something that cannot and will not ever be replaced by technology.