The theatre industry has been forced to innovate and adapt more than ever over the past year. Theatres and productions worldwide have had to find new ways to stay afloat while unable to host live audiences or only minimal capacity for live audiences.
Given the explosion of online streaming services over the past ten years, many theatre companies have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to dip their toe into the water of online streaming. Some made their work accessible on YouTube; some sold tickets to shows streamed on their website ‘as live’. One theatre that has successfully brought theatre to people at home and seems to be here to stay is National Theatre at Home.
Where did it come from?
Streaming theatre is not a new phenomenon, particularly for the National Theatre. Its innovative programme, NT Live, has been streaming performances live to cinemas across the UK since 2009. It was praised as a step forward for theatre accessibility. "Streaming is less a threat than a hope, doing more than any other innovation to tackle the elitism and the lack of access that plague the performing arts today", The Economist wrote.
National Theatre streamed pre-recorded plays on YouTube during the UK’s first lockdown, making one available per week for 16 weeks. The productions were viewed 15 million times in 173 countries, according to the Guardian. National Theatre was searched on Google more than it has been in over 15 years the week their shows became available online. It led the organisation to launch a streaming platform, National Theatre at Home, in December 2020, making new and archival performances available by either subscription or pay-per-view. Starting at £5.99 for a single viewing, it offers a cheaper and more accessible version of the theatre for audiences to consume at home.
How does it work?
National Theatre at Home has a range of plays filmed live that you can watch on the platform. You can watch them on the website or get the app on your phone, Amazon Fire or Roku TV.
Shows are available either to rent as a single play or on a monthly subscription. For a single play, shows cost either £5.99 or £7.99, depending on the recording. Once you press play on the show, you get three days to finish watching it before the rental period ends. For a subscription, you can either pay £9.98 per month or £99.98 for an annual subscription, giving you 12 months for the price of 10. With a subscription, you can access any recording at any time and watch shows as many times as you want.
National Theatre at Home has both National Theatre Live and National Theatre Archive recordings. National Theatre Live recordings cost £7.99 to rent, and are the versions broadcast to cinemas before the pandemic. These are the higher quality recordings that use multiple camera angles and optimise the show to make sure the sound and lighting quality are as good as possible for streaming. National Theatre Archive recordings cost £5.99 to rent. These were used to document production for the National Theatre's archives. They are slightly lower quality than the Live versions, using fewer cameras and are less optimised for on-screen viewing.
National Theatre at Home add new plays every month, so there’s always new content on the platform. National Theatre is well-known for its star-studded casts, and the streamed shows are no different. Here are a few shows that, at the time of writing, are available on the platform to give you a taste of what’s available.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
This Tennessee Williams classic stars Sienna Miller and This is England’s Jack O'Connell in the lead roles. It follows a Mississippi family who gathers for the birthday of 'Big Daddy' at their family estate. It focuses on the relationships between various family members, exploring the sexual tension between some, the relentless lying of others, and the mortality of Big Daddy. Originally performed at London's Young Vic theatre, it was well-reviewed when it hit the stage in 2018, called a "bold reimagining… innovative and powerfully acted" by the Sunday Times.
Angels in America
This Tony Kushner play was hugely popular when it opened in London, receiving consistent five-star ratings and becoming hailed as a must-see production. Olivier and Tony award-winner Marianne Elliott directs, with Hacksaw Ridge’s Andrew Garfield, The History Boys' Russell Tovey and Olivier award-winner Denise Gough starring. Set in the US in the 1980s, it follows six New Yorkers grappling with the reality of the AIDS crisis during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
One of Shakespeare’s lesser appreciated plays, Coriolanus is one of his tragedies. The play follows a Roman leader who must lead his people through famine and political unrest, despite his unpopularity with the 'plebeians’. It stars Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager, The Avengers) in its titular role, with Mark Gatiss, Alfred Enouch, and Hadley Fraser also in the cast. Hiddleston's performance was widely praised, and it was an extremely popular show.
Acclaimed British playwright Lucy Kirkwood wrote Mosquitoes to premiere at the National Theatre in 2017 after her plays Chimerica and The Children became wildly popular amongst critics and audiences in London. It follows two sisters: Alice, a scientist searching for the Higgs Boson, and Jenny, a homebody who sells health insurance over the phone. They are played respectively by Olivia Williams (The Heart of Me, The Ghost Writer) and Olivia Colman (The Crown, Fleabag). Filled with science metaphors, the play swings between the cosmic and the domestic for a unique and thought-provoking modern show.
Another fantastic Young Vic show, Yerma is a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, written in 1934. It tells the story of a woman living in Spain who becomes obsessed with becoming a mother whose desperation ultimately leads to tragedy. This adaptation is set in modern London and stars Billie Piper, who rose to fame in Doctor Who. This play made her the only actor to win all six UK theatre Best Actress awards for a single performance (Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, What's On Stage, Critic's Circle, Broadway UK, and Glamour Women Awards).
Will it continue after theatres reopen?
On the National Theatre at Home website, most of the plays are advertised as available until March 2022, so you have plenty of time to make use of the programming. While no one knows whether the platform will continue to be open and release new content after this, many believe that it could and should continue.
Accessibility is an issue that has been forced to the forefront because, in 2020, people in the UK and worldwide suddenly had accessibility issues for the first time. Theatre has had to adapt to survive. For many, the changing way we consume theatre will allow them to access the industry in a way they never have before. There are many barriers to attending live theatre, such as high-ticket costs, disability or location. Thousands of people in the UK can't afford to splurge on theatre tickets or travel costs to come to London, where the vast majority of UK theatre is. National Theatre at Home and similar streamed theatre services could be the answer.
In a survey conducted by Ticketmaster and Research Now, 35% of respondents said their primary barrier to live theatre attendance was the ticket cost. The Arts Council conducted a research study in 2016 looking specifically at how cinema screenings or at-home viewings of theatre have drawn in audiences with lower incomes. They found that one-quarter of audience members at the studied NT Live showings earned below £20,000 per year. National Theatre at Home could continue to draw in audiences who have lower incomes and can’t afford the ticket cost or the travel to venues.
Analysis by Arts Council England found that just 6% of London theatre audience members and 7% - 8% outside London identify as disabled. In contrast, this number rises to 16% across the general population. National Theatre at Home has several access provisions, aside from the main benefit of watching shows from a laptop wherever you like, removing the physical barriers of venues. It also offers captions on all performances and audio description and British Sign Language provisions on certain performances.
Even without these accessibility issues, many don't have the time to go to the theatre or would like to pop a theatre show on in the evening while they have dinner at home. This service is perfect for those who want to class up a night in or watch theatre rather than the latest Netflix series.
Will online theatre affect live theatre?
There were concerns when NT Live launched that it would negatively affect audience numbers for live theatres and ultimately harm the industry. However, Nesta (formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) conducted a research study and found no adverse effect on audience numbers in regional theatres. It analysed 54 performing arts venues across England alongside the screenings of these performances in cinemas with NT Live. They actually found a 6% increase in attendance of those productions at local theatres!
David Sabel, the National Theatre’s director of broadcast and digital, responded to the results: “We believe that the more great drama people are able to see, the more they are likely to want to go to the theatre; so it’s great to see that Nesta’s latest research confirms that live broadcasts are a valuable complement to the live theatre experience.”
While it's not clear yet whether online theatre will have the same effect, we can't see live theatre going anywhere soon. Consuming theatre at home and consuming theatre live at a venue are still very different experiences. Most people agree there is plenty of room for the two to co-exist.
We spoke to Stacey Meadwell from Rev Stan's Theatre Blog, who told Age Times: "National Theatre at home is a great way to watch quality theatre without leaving your sofa. While not quite the same as seeing a live production, it is expertly filmed and edited so you get a fantastic, close-up view of the performances. And it’s good value."
Should I subscribe?
For voracious theatre fans who can't wait for live theatre to be back, this is a great option to tide you over until live theatre returns. You can trust National Theatre to consistently deliver incredible shows with great casts, and the National Theatre Live recordings make it feel like you're there in the room.
If you’re less of a fanatic but want to catch the odd show you enjoy or starring you favourite actor, single play rentals are a great option. It's something a little different to do on a night-in or date night at home and definitely worth the reasonable rental costs. If there's a month where there's a few different shows you're keen to watch, you can always get a monthly subscription and cancel it when the month is over to save a few pounds on renting them all individually.