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  • “The forms of things unknown”:Shakespeare and the Rise of the Live Broadcast
  • Erin Sullivan

“This has never happened before. The immediacy, the sense of being there, is unlike any experience you have ever known. This is the theatre of the future, taking shape before your eyes today.”

—Richard Burton, promotional trailer for his “Electronovision” Hamlet, 1964

What is theater, if not the experience of “being there?” Of sharing the same space as the actors, of merging oneself into an audience, of enacting the rights of ritual? Such performance, Peggy Phelan has famously argued, “occurs over a time which will not be repeated” (146). It is fundamentally about what is happening now, right here, so much so that we might even say that it becomes a verb: theater is an act of doing, and we are part of it. But what happens when the very notion of “being there” starts to shift, when it is possible to stay in one place and yet move from here to the theater and back again with the push of a button or the tap of a screen? Are we there, and is what we’re doing still theater, or are we experiencing something so different that the form itself begins to rupture, producing what can only be thought of as new performances and “new texts” (Parsons 101)?1

Such questions have taken on new urgency in recent years with the rapid rise in theater broadcasting worldwide. Since 2009, the National Theatre in London has beamed a selection of its season to cinema audiences across the globe, resulting in what can only be thought of as a paradigm shift in theatergoing practices. Thousands of people still flock to the Southbank every month to see an NT production live and in person, but at least as many head to movie theaters around the world to [End Page 627] experience the NT’s offerings closer to home. The very first NT Live broadcast—a June 2009 performance of Nicholas Hytner’s Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren—attracted a global cinema audience of more than fifty thousand people, roughly equivalent to the total in-house audience for the production’s entire three-month run (Bakhshi and Throsby 2).2 More recently, Lyndsey Turner’s blockbuster Hamlet at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, not only became the fastest-selling theater production in London history but also set a new record for global cinema viewing, with more than 225,000 people in twenty-five countries seeing it broadcast in October 2015 (Hawkes). In the UK alone, it was shown in 87% of cinemas, generating national ticket sales of £2.93m by the end of the year. By way of comparison, Justin Kurzel’s feature film of Macbeth, released in the UK in the same month and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, brought in £2.82m during that time (Gardner, “Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet”; Hutchinson, “Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet”).

The picture that is emerging, then, is one of steady and even rapid growth, with the development of live broadcasting affecting not just the surrounding theater ecology but potentially the cinematic landscape, too. From seventy cinemas in the UK in 2009 to two thousand worldwide by 2017, the NT Live franchise has swiftly expanded and inspired further broadcasting programs from other major theaters (Rosenthal 793; “Key Facts”). These include Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010, the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, and the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival and the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company (KBTC) in 2015, not to mention the growing number of smaller companies that are experimenting with online broadcasting, such as Cheek by Jowl, Complicite, and Talawa.3 Such initiatives have provoked spirited debate among theater critics, practitioners, and audience members, many of whom have questioned whether such relays can really count as theater, but sustained academic investigation into the nature and impact of live broadcasting is still in its infancy.4 Martin Barker has emphasized the importance of audience research to the field and outlined key questions for the event cinema industry as a whole, while John Wyver has mapped the early history of theater broadcasting in the UK and offered invaluable insights into the technical craft behind twenty...


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