“The forms of things unknown”: Shakespeare and the rise of the live broadcast

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Since 2009, the National Theatre in London has broadcast a selection of its season to cinema audiences around the world, resulting in what can only be thought of as a paradigm shift in theatre-going practices. This article explores the complex forms of craftsmanship involved in creating broadcasts and recordings for programmes such as NT Live, RSC Live, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and Globe on Screen, as well as what this means for our evolving understanding of theatrical spectatorship. Looking first at how debates about broadcasting have tended to downplay the artistry of those involved in interpreting theatre for screen, the article moves into a detailed analysis of the film grammar at work in more than a dozen Shakespeare broadcasts. Here it explores how broadcasters construct a sense of place at a distance, and especially how they use different shot compositions, editing paces, and camera views to produce forms of spectatorship that can vary dramatically in their theatricality. While the inclusion of more televisual or filmic moments such as a close-up or an aerial shot can significantly enrich a broadcast, this article argues that it is through the steady presentation of movement through space that a transmission can embrace a production’s theatrical origins—and, in doing so, produce a visual sense of “being there” that is most cognate with live, in-person spectatorship. In such cases, these broadcasts do not constitute entirely new texts, fundamentally separate from the productions upon which they are based, but rather an expansion of our current understanding of the nature of theatrical spectatorship.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)627-662
Number of pages36
JournalShakespeare Bulletin
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 13 Dec 2017


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