Behind the scenes with National Theatre Live Behind the scenes with National Theatre Live
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Behind the scenes with National Theatre Live

How do you film a theatre production so that it looks as good on the big screen as it does on stage? As Matilda Battersby discovered, there's a lot more involved than pointing a camera at the actors.

It used to be much easier to catch a brilliant piece of theatre, even if you couldn't get to the theatre itself. From the 1960s onwards, stage productions were broadcast on television for everyone to enjoy, but then the pressure to win ratings plus the cost of outside broadcasting meant that theatre gradually dropped off our screens – so if you wanted to see the latest West End production it meant getting yourself to the West End.

But the small screen’s loss has become the big screen’s gain. Vue not only shows a range of productions from the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe and more, it also enhances the experience in a way only they can, using 4K screens and Dolby surround sound to bring these theatrical experiences to life in a whole new way.
Behind the scenes with National Theatre Live Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet at the Barbican. Image credit: Ludo des Cognets.
We re-stage every play we put in the cinema. We completely re-do the lighting, we completely re-do the make-up and the wigs. Ultimately, I’m there to interpret for film what they’ve already created.

Today broadcast of live theatre is more popular than it has ever been. Take National Theatre Live, who broadcast the National Theatre's productions to the big screen. In 2015, their broadcast of the stage production of Hamlet (pictured) starring Benedict Cumberbatch performed better at the box office than the film adaptation of Macbeth.

And to think the naysers argued you could never capture the heartbeat of a live production. Well, they were partly right. Because the aim of big screen theatre isn’t just to reproduce theatrical performances. This is something that National Theatre Live know well. It’s why they hire the best multi-camera directors and production teams in the world and let them take out up to 300 audience seats to accommodate technical equipment on an epic scale. It’s why they stage productions specifically for live broadcast and devote rehearsal time, money and expertise to getting it right. 

Behind the scenes with National Theatre Live Image credit: Ludo des Cognets.

You can’t just set up a few cameras and expect it to work on screen. “We have to give an experience to an audience that is better than in the theatre,” says Tim van Someren, a camera director who has captured amongst many others As You Like It, Frankenstein and War Horse for NT Live. “I do mean ‘better’ because in cinema you’re guided. You won’t get splattered by blood in Macbeth, but we will show you the best moments. It’s my job to make sure you don’t miss them.”

Live camera directors like van Someren sit outside the theatre in trucks housing a mobile production gallery (a huge bank of monitors) and decide what the Vue-goers see: cut to camera 1 for a close up during an emotional scene, camera 2 for the reaction.

The whole point of this is to make the audience see the play to its greatest potential.

The productions being filmed are normally sold out, and things can change on the night. A line might be delivered later than expected or the facial expression you thought was coming might not arrive, so the director has to adapt to how the drama is being portrayed to make sure that each twitch of emotion, every moment of beauty, is showcased.

But there’s a degree of background work, too. “We re-stage every play we put in the cinema,” van Someren says. “We completely re-do the lighting, we completely re-do the make-up and the wigs. Ultimately, I’m there to interpret for film what they’ve already created."

This December sees the live broadcast of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land from Wyndham’s Theatre, which reunites Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. “The whole point of this is to make the audience see the play to its greatest potential, so that they want to see more theatre,” says van Someren. 

Big screen theatre to catch at Vue 

NT Live: No Man's Land 

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the West End stage in Harold Pinter’s No Man's Land, broadcast live to Vue from Wyndham’s Theatre, London.

15th December. Get times and tickets here.

RSC Live: The Tempest 

After 20 years, Simon Russell Beale returns to play Prospero in a production directed by Artistic Director Gregory Doran.

11th January. Get times and tickets here.

NT Live: Amadeus

Lucian Msamati (Luther, Game of Thrones, NT Live: The Comedy of Errors) plays Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, broadcast live from the National Theatre, and with live orchestral accompaniment by Southbank Sinfonia.

2nd February. Get times and tickets here.

NT Live: Saint Joan

Gemma Arterton is Joan of Arc in Bernard Shaw’s classic play, which follows the life and trial of a young country girl who declares a bloody mission to drive the English from France.

16th February. Get times and tickets here.

NT Live: Hedda Gabler

Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove returns to National Theatre Live screens with a modern production of Ibsen’s masterpiece starring Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair, Jane Eyre). 

9th March. Get times and tickets here.