‘How near the tidings of our comfort is’

1st November 2013

First day of the new month, and just twelve to go until the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast to UK cinemas of the RSC’s Richard II (full details and links to ticket sales here). On Sunday the trucks arrive for our first camera rehearsal on Monday. On Tuesday the theatre and broadcast teams will review the tape and start to make adjustments, and then the trucks will return on the following Monday. I will blog the process further and also tweet it via @Illuminations. Meanwhile, there is last week’s production diary to catch up on – and following that I want to point you to some further reading and address Michael Kaiser’s recent alarmist remarks about cinema broadcasts of performance.

Dr Peter Kirwan, lecturer in Shakespeare and early modern drama at the University of Nottingham, has published the most detailed, thoughtful and informed response to the production to date. It’s on his blog The Bardathon (which I heartily recommend) – and with the most minor of caveats it’s a rave which concludes

Aurally and visually stunning, and gripping from start to finish, this Richard IIshowcased Doran’s ability to make every word of a production clear and significant. It’s a bold opening to a new phase of the RSC’s work, and as difficult to resist as Richard’s own kingly performance.

Dominic Cavendish wrote a thoughtful piece for the Telegraph this week, although the headline suggested more uncertainty than the copy: Should live theatre be shown in cinemas? But the piece that really caught my attention was the brief jeremiad for The Huffington Post by Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. In Questions for the future of the arts? Kaiser suggests that live cinema broadcasts are A Bad Thing not on aesthetic grounds but because of what they threaten to do for the cultural infrastructure.

Kaiser at the get-go squashes one of the key reasons that the RSC, National Theatre, Royal Opera House and others are so committed to this new form:

The rationale given for the value of these broadcasts is that they build new audiences, although the jury is still out on this. From my unscientific observation, it seems we are merely substituting one source of entertainment for another for the same, traditional audience.

No concern there, then, for those – for example – unable to travel to Stratford or who are excluded by cost or the air of exclusivity that theatres have traditionally thrown up. And let’s not bother with the hundreds of schools and thousands of young minds who a couple of days after the broadcast are going to see a great Shakespeare production with a great Shakespeare cast and take part in a live Q&A with David Tennant and director Greg Doran.

Kaiser is worried instead about the competition that cinema and other technological mediations of performance pose for mid-sized regional arts organisations in the USA:

Are we witnessing a major transition in the arts from regional organizations to fewer mega-organizations with the sophistication to mount large scale productions, to market them well and to raise large sums of money? Technology has certainly made it easier for consumers to access the best in culture – if not live than via their personal computers and mobile devices.

His argument is that audiences will stop going to theatres and concert halls and huddle instead around screens, whether with others in cinemas or alone with their mobile. But why on earth should this be one or the other? Surely increased access to great performances can only stimulate more interest, more understanding, more enlightenment and more demand? And the ever richer cultural and media economy in which we live and work can only be of greater benefit to more people.

Which is, after all, why we are in the business of the arts. Not to prop up organisations that are unable to speak to their audiences in ways that are relevant to now and unimaginative enough not to be able to integrate the potential of screen performances into a vibrant local scene that also includes live events of all kinds. This should be an exciting world of “…AND…” not “…OR…”.

Kaiser concludes with some further questions, each of which seems a touch eccentric to me:

Will there soon be enough competition between performing arts behemoths that ticket prices for these broadcasts will fall and profits be squeezed?

Answer: maybe, but this is not primarily about profit for any of the organisations involved, and as the market matures we are all grown-up enough to be able to respond and adapt.

Will Der Rosenkavalier from the Royal Opera House be viewed any differently than from the Metropolitan Opera? […]

Answer: of course it will, because the audience that is becoming more knowledgeable and more critical with each performance that it watches will be able to make their own judgements about performance and production, and perhaps even about the ways in which those have been mediated for the screen.

And will the pressure to create work that sells to hundreds of thousands of people reduce the willingness of mega-organizations to take artistic risk?

Answer: er, like these organisations don’t already deal with this question every day, and haven’t they done so for decades and more? The willingness of major arts organisations to take risks will always be down to the creative ambition of their staffs, their boards, their collaborators – and their audiences, and why taking productions to more people than ever before should threaten this quite frankly baffles me.


  1. Annie says:

    Great blog entry! I for one, am giving the RSC a standing ovation at being so bold as to not just dip their toes into all that interactive mediums such as simulcasts, social media and downloadable have to offer, but go gleefully leaping into the fray.

    Although I have not availed myself of the cinema experience yet (sadly Richard II is not been broadcast in Canberra only Sydney and Melbourne), I have had friends who have seen some of the operas and have enjoyed it hugely. These are performances that we in Australia and other countries can never hope to attend.

    I would love to think that I could attend an opera at the Met, or see a Shakespeare play performed by the RSC. But apart from daydreaming, it’s just not going to happen, unless I win the Lottery.

    The great thing about seeing one of these screenings (so my friends tell me, is the sharing between the audience, which is more marked than an audience merely seeing a movie. More conversation, more a feeling of camaraderie and willingness to express reactions, both during and after the performances.

    The RSC is also making Shakespeare more accessible and relevant to students as well as giving teachers such valuable resources.


    As for the ‘HuffPo’, it would seem their arts writers are as on par with their medical articles.

    Good luck with the filming. I have been enjoying your blog updates hugely.

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