Features Published 7 August 2020

NT at Home: An Incomplete Diary

Alice Saville writes on surviving through lockdown, and learning to love livestreamed theatre.

Alice Saville
"One Man, Two Guvnors"

Servant of two masters. Photo: Tristram Kenton

2nd April, 2020 – One Man, Two Guvnors

I’m peering at the screen with eyes that are stinging, slightly, from the oniony fug that’s filling the kitchen. The supermarket shelves were bare apart from some brussels sprouts and all the pulses I already had at home, so I’d come back empty handed and ushered an ancient packet of red split lentils into the destiny they’d avoided through three house moves dahl. I’ve balanced my laptop precariously on a shelf so I can watch while I cook not realising, yet, that you can watch NT at Home performances week. It’s 7.28pm. The camera pans over an audience that’s sitting comfortably, in the idealised state you’re meant to be in to be entertained fed, phones switched off, eyes directed forwards, heads cleared of anxiety, pulses slow and lulled by padded seats. I’m standing, frazzled after two weeks with mainly the news for company, two pans boiling over, worried that I’d be left as hard and unaffected by the merriment that follows as an old lentil, bobbing in water but stubbornly unsoftening. 

I was half right. I make a serious effort to invest my mental energies in the performance (“maybe this is just how things are going to be, now” I stoutly tell myself) even if what mostly comes over in One Man, Two Guvnors is the relentless artifice of it all, the vintage-British-telly references heightened when framed on a small screen. The play’s a machine to crank laughter out of an audience. Live, its steel bones don’t feel as visible. Even as someone who doesn’t like farce, I remember feeling these moments of pure wonder, at the way James Cordon threw himself into pratfalls, or at the childlike mayhem of the second act’s dinner scene, or at the audacity of pelting an audience member with cream.

As my own slapstick act of assembling dinner comes to an end, I start to feel glad that I tuned in right on time. People are livetweeting along, in what feels comfortingly close to the kind of shared experience my life’s been missing. The actor who plays the cream-pelted Christine Patterson I knew in my heart she was a plant is finally getting the credit for it. I like this. Watching the show on screen somehow pulls down its magic and artifice, making it one giant wink to the audience. It’s an effort, a real effort, to make myself care about these campy 60s shenanigans, to overlook the retro sexism and xenophobic digs calculated to cause minimum offense.  But for the moments where I pull it off, it’s delicious.

Addendum: three million views on YouTube. THREE MILLION. Who donated an average of less than 2p each.

Jane Eyre at the National Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

Jane Eyre at the National Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

9th April, 2020 – Jane Eyre

Here I am, tuning in on Thursday again. “Maybe this is my life now,” I think, again.

That phrase comes up for me a lot at the moment. The pandemic removed formal employment or any kind of overarching purpose from my life overnight, and I feel a bit like I did when I graduated uni, post summer job, back in my childhood bedroom wondering what life’s going to be. 

Desperate to grasp on to any kind of ritual, I’ve made a tragic kind of wall calendar and marked different digital events on it; quizzes, virtual brunches, chats with family, watering the seeds I’ve harvested from supermarket vegetables. NT at Home takes pride of place in a hectic but slightly unsatisfying new schedule “How come I get nothing done but always feel so busy”, the Jeffrey Lewis song goes. 

I’ve read Jane Eyre a lot of times. The first one I was way too young, cried my eyes out at Jane’s childhood friend Helen dying in her arms as they shiver in nightdresses, undernourished and afraid. Didn’t even make it to Rochester. Since then, I’ve gone back and back for its clash of sickly Victorian morality and passion and heat, somehow thriving underneath layers of corsets and poor treatment and misery.

Sally Cookson’s production captures that fire-that-can’t-be-put-out. I love how fierce and elemental it feels, the way that moments that could be twee (a physical theatre carriage ride through the English countryside!) become boisterous stamps of clogs, evoking a world where Jane must become as hard and self-contained as a pebble to survive.

I wonder about writing something a few people are reviewing livestreams. But I can’t summon up the energy. As the UK sits in a rare moment of crisis the kind of crisis that other countries experience more regularly I become suddenly aware of criticism as a luxury. How pampered, to move from a state of being ‘grateful the arts are there’ to ‘ready to sit down and deliver a critique’. When will we move out of this state, of being just happy that there are still scraps of theatre that exist, and treasuring them like the remembered snippets of Simpsons’ dialogue in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns? I think, too, of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He theorised that self-actualisation (aka achieving your creative potential) can only come once your basic needs are met; food, safety, companionship, and then self-respect. 

I think of the picture I took last week of supermarket shelves, bare apart from some brussels sprouts. My brain feels a bit like that, right now.  

I send the link to Jane Eyre to a few people who I think would like it, people who don’t work in theatre. It feels good to share something I love without, at the same time, asking someone to invest £30+ and a night in following my recommendation. Like sharing a song. I don’t think they actually watch it though. 

Frankenstein at National Theatre – starring a very realistic steam train

2nd May – Frankenstein

I thought this would become a weekly ritual, the NT at Home on Thursday, but I slipped. Treasure Island didn’t appeal to me I can’t explain it, but something about adults-playing-children that always makes me feel weird inside. Twelfth Night I wasn’t up for the whole Malvolia-as-lesbian-figure-of-fun thing, as much as Tamsin Grieg is a delight to behold. And to be honest I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the weirdness of this time, by the abundance of free culture which I can’t summon up the appetite for like standing in front of a funeral buffet with a painful lump in my throat. 

But Frankenstein falls (I will guiltily admit here) into the category of things I am always ready to watch; the schlocky, ambitious, extravagant mainstage extravaganza, the one that people talk about with slightly raised eyebrows. “I swear there was a real steam train!” one friend says, before being forced to admit (midshow, in a group WhatsApp) that it’s a chimaera of physical theatre and flashing lights. I miss watching people pretending to be trains. 

My phone screen keeps flashing.

*blurred selfies with wine* 

“Hey that’s the Minister of Magic!” 

“Guys I think we’re watching it the wrong way round”

“What’s happened they’ve just been shouting for ages?”

“I feel like this is either the best or the worst way to watch this show”

“Is there actually an interval? Did it already happen?”

“Someone give me a clock time”

“1:34”

“1:33.25”

“God I loved that bit of music when I was 20”

“It’s nice to hear the audience! I miss being near strangers!”

Watching and Whatsapping has been one of my favourite things about lockdown. I love assembling wine and the cats and friends’ phone numbers and sometimes a kind of terrible costume and making a night of it. It’s definitely not the ideal way to actually watch something, though. It’s kind of like why I try not to keep scribbling in a notebook in front of me when I’m reviewing. When the play drags, I become too invested in trying to write smart things, not invested enough in submerging myself in the performance, and feeling it rather than thinking it. 

But it also makes room to digest the uncomfortable bits of a play that had retreated back into distant memory – in real time, together, like digging up some kind of archaeological artefact and interrogating every bump. We talk about the awfulness of the rape scene, which somehow I didn’t remember from the book (but is textually accurate), and the way that the tone of this adaptation is totally unequal to dealing with it. My partner talks about feeling weird about the way Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein’s creation, too we talk about whether it’s a coincidence that some of the movements he makes look like those of disabled children.  Later, I read that he researched the role by visiting schools for autistic young people – in trying to put something authentically human into a fantastical horror story, he risks undermining the humanity of real, less culturally visible people. 

“It wouldn’t happen now”, the WhatsApp group chat says.

Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

14th May – Barber Shop Chronicles

I thought I preferred livestreams filmed with a fixed camera (to let the eye roam around the stage at will, without an unseen hand guiding the experience) but oh god, that would be terrible here. It feels like the camera’s actually on the stage, dancing shoulder-to-shoulder with these men in the brilliantly welcoming opening set-up, where audience members step on stage for (imaginary) haircuts and then it pulls away to show how the cast sit at the heart of a ring of audience members.

This restless camera captures the specialness of Inua Ellams’ play; the way it feels like a gathering, a place where thousands of invisible power lines drawn across the globe cross and fizz and crackle. A simple interaction sitting in a barber’s chair takes on endless revealing variations, one man carelessly throwing himself down, another meticulously dusting it with a handkerchief. And somehow, it manages to navigate the impossible line between being ‘for’ black men, of raising up and celebrating the intimate specific culture of barber shops, and making the complexities of this diaspora visible to outsiders. Sometimes I can feel the bones a little, again comedy is harder than anything to capture on film and I feel extra-aware of the way that this play steers its audience from talking point to talking point. But lines also jump out and lodge in my throat.

Like when we hear that with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, “they started to package time. But Africa… time cannot contain us. The padlock doesn’t work.”

Ellam’s play throws this out as an airy provocation, not a gospel truth about how a whole disparate continent operates. But wow, how differently it lands in the time-defying space of lockdown, where train times are abstract concepts (if you’re not a key worker, that is), day blurs into evening, and the appearance of spring becomes something to latch onto with maniacal Wordsworthian enthusiasm each insta-beloved peony petal or reluctantly sprouting tomato seed is proof that the world is still turning. We’ve beaten capitalism. Kind of. Or we’re being beaten by it. I can’t decide.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Johan Persson

27-28th May – Streetcar Named Desire

I think I might have transformed into a Tennessee Williams character, desperately longing for live theatre like Blanche longs for the lost pleasures of Belle Rive. There’s something about the gap between glamorous lost ideal and grim reality that’s so fundamentally camp, but Benedict Andrews’ Young Vic production shortens some of that ironic distance. It’s brutal, elemental, a messy drawn-out tussle for survival, set in a sterile abattoir of an apartment. The blue-lit set revolves, giving the play an ugly kind of 4am drunkenness, and letting us see its confrontations through each character’s bleary eyes. 

All this being said, and despite the very significant lure of Gillian Anderson’s performance, my partner and I both slip into an uncomfortable sleep somewhere around the interval, cats snoring approvingly on our laps. We wake up slightly baffled, and set an alarm so we can watch the rest at 8am before we start work (okay, maybe time’s padlock isn’t so rusty). The second act feels like a weird continuation of the dreams I woke up from. I feel so close to this play. Perhaps seeing it live, the revolving apartment set would make the audience feel more distant, shut out. But on film, it allows for a typically kind of cinematic intimacy, letting the camera softly pan across brutal scenes. I get left with this sense of people stumbling through their lives, losing control, unaware if they’re doing things because they want to or need to or just because they can. It feels like a good play to watch now, when so many people I know are separately having the worst time of their lives – a call to compassion, even if I still shudder at the heightened harshness of the men-in-white-coats-taking-me-away ending.

Another gap. A long one. I guess I can only explain it as… I guess… I was too worried about the abstract survival of this-thing-called-theatre to be able to immerse myself in the reality of it on stage. Which I know is ironic. There’s a thing where people who write diaries don’t reference massive world events – like, on declaration-of-world-war level events. So I want to fill this space with an acknowledgement of some things. Of the constantly rising coronavirus death toll that was a backdrop to these months, underacknowledged and undermourned by a government that prioritised ‘business as usual’ above all else. Of the courage of the Black Lives Matter protesters, who risked so much to combat white supremacy and police brutality. Of the bravery of everyone who kept talking about hard, important stuff when it felt almost impossible, with the hope of emerging into a fairer world whenever this was over. And also of the gradual, crushing realisation of how destructive these months would be to theatre – that despite a long-awaited bailout, venues would be lost, mass redundancies were inevitable, and all of this would hit theatre’s precarious and casual workers hardest.

Lucian Msamati as Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Lucian Msamati as Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner.

18th July – Amadeus

How calculated was the decision to end on Amadeus, I wonder? Did someone in the kind of large swivelly chair I imagine comes with decision-making roles at the NT sit back and say – “Yes. They’re ready. After nearly four months of struggling through lockdown they’re perfectly primed to confront their own profound mediocrity, culpability and mortality through the lens of a seemingly-petty rivalry between two eighteenth century composers.”

Oh, I was not ready.

Peter Shaffer’s play is remorseless. It’s almost unbearable to watch Salieri grapple with his own monumental hypocrisy, with his agonising lack of genius. Salieri has an impeccably finely-tuned ability to appreciate art, to pin down what makes Mozart’s music great in a few pained phrases, but lacks even the smallest drop of that same genius in his own work. The stereotypical critic, haha. And watching it, I feel some kind of lost critical faculties returning. I savour the way Lucian Msamati drops decades from his age, at his extravagant hypocrisy, at the way he revels in the linguistic sensuousness of this verbose old man’s confession. And I wonder if the production brilliant in many ways misses some of Shaffer’s divinity. There’s a moment where the stage is fully dark apart from a shaft of light through a cathedral window, and I want more of it to feel like that.

But at least I’m finally there, ‘in the room’. Have I been training myself to watch online theatre, like you can train your ears to appreciate doom metal? 

At the start of lockdown, my Maslowian pyramid was structurally unsound. I was lacking the cornerstones of safety, companionship, and Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages (although they’re probably not what Maslow meant by essential needs). Now, it’s more the shifting sands underneath me that I worry about. 

6th August 

In the weeks since NT at Home finished, I’ve felt the loss a little bit. Even when I didn’t tune in, there was this little flutter of conversations on social media each week, a reassuring sense of people being brought together by theatre. Now there’s just – 

We’re a long way from the dizzying weekly round of press nights I was churlishly complaining about just six months ago. We’re also past the early days of lockdown, when the world’s benevolent cultural institutions spoiled us with free entertainments like guilty absent parents. Things feel much, much harder now. After four months of draining uncertainty and high-stakes conversations, we’re in a new and terrifying world – one where the government has cheerfully thrown theatres into the wide chasm between ‘the end of the furlough scheme’ and ‘the start of indoor live theatre on economically viable terms’. 

Looking back through this diary, what’s remarkable is how quickly NT at Home arrived on the scene – how it made theatre central to the weird realm of culture-under-lockdown when it could so easily have been an afterthought. And also how it brushed away decades of objections to making these archive recordings freely available.

One of my least favourite things about theatre is its logic of exclusivity. Yes, do a performance for a room of 20 people – that’s something intimate and special. But there’s no reason to heavily restrict access to a filmed performance, not unless you’re actively dedicated to keeping theatre as an artform for a minuscule group of mostly-middle-class people who’ve devoted a formidable amount of time to it (livestreams with interactive elements are a cherished and honorable exception here). There’s been so much carping about how livestreams aren’t the same, and I’m guilty of it too… But. An article from TodayTix (who’ve rebranded, with Annie-like optimism, as TomorrowTix) announces that theatregoers are more likely to book tickets to see Hamilton after watching the filmed version on Disney+. Over 70% want to keep watching filmed theatre once live performances return. 

To keep a passion alive, you have to feed it. You need to be able to engage with the thing you love, even if it’s at a distance, in a non-optimal form, like 60s pop fans tuning into crackling broadcasts from Radio Caroline. Filmed theatre lets you do that. It’s very much not perfect. But it’s got the potential to nourish existing theatre fans through whatever will happen over the next year or two, and to open things up to new ones.

What I’m thinking about, now NT at Home has finished – is – how do we find the sense of joyful community, of fandom around theatre, in a way that’s not centred around collectively wringing our hands over its fate? For an artform to thrive, you don’t just need the spaces and people to make it physically happen, you also need that passionate kind of conversation and criticism and debate about the art itself from a variety of viewpoints – something that I’m desperately invested in making space for (even as hunting for ideas for new Exeunt articles and debates and review strands feels increasingly like panning for gold in a half-dry creek bed). 

So, what now? I guess I’m left with a question – how do I make sure theatre doesn’t drift out of my life? How can I find a way to feed that love on something solid and nutritious? To let that love still be critical, at least a little bit, rather than allowing it to dissipate into a Tennessee Williams-ish fug of nostalgic longing? As the pressure grows to sit out these lean years for theatre, I’m looking for ways not to hibernate, vanish – or just tune out.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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