NT at Home: National Theatre's streaming service saves Yorkshire audiences a journey to London

Disney Plus, Apple TV, Prime Video, Netflix - have I missed any? Paramount Plus, Now TV, Britbox, More 4, ITVX. The list could go on and on.

So it is with some significant reservation that I recommend yet another streaming service.

If, however, you are a fan of theatre, this one is truly worth investigation.

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NT at Home was launched three years ago (no prizes for guessing what global event coincided with the launch of the service) and as it approaches its third birthday, it really is worth taking a look at what the streaming channel provides - and more importantly, why.

A production shot from The Wife of Willesden. Picture: Marc Brenner.A production shot from The Wife of Willesden. Picture: Marc Brenner.
A production shot from The Wife of Willesden. Picture: Marc Brenner.

The pandemic took away so much theatre, but at the heart of that, it took away our ability to sit together, to gather in theatres and experience a collectively told story, collectively.

Hands up - the idea of theatre to stream at home, on your laptop or smart TV is, to me, anathema. Part of the point of theatre is to be in commune with the audience and the actors sharing the same space as you - it is a shared piece of storytelling. I’ve lost count of the number of actors, directors, playwrights, who tell me that the final ingredient to any piece of theatre, the thing that turns it into the actual thing it’s going to be following rehearsal - is the audience. Surely without the audience, if you are streaming at home on a device, that vital final cog is missing. Doesn’t it make the machine fall apart?

I thought so.

Then I began to work with Bradford Producing Hub (BPH), earlier this year, on a project called Culture Club, a kind of book club for theatre. The idea was to bring people together to improve the critical conversation around theatre: it’s a social event, but, ahead of Bradford’s year as UK City of Culture, BPH wanted to arm a cohort of citizens with the kind of critical language and faculties that helps to raise the bar for all.

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An image The Wife of Willesden, adapted by Zadie Smith. Picture: Marc Brenner.An image The Wife of Willesden, adapted by Zadie Smith. Picture: Marc Brenner.
An image The Wife of Willesden, adapted by Zadie Smith. Picture: Marc Brenner.

There were two options for Culture Club - we needed to all see the same show in order to have those critical conversations. The organisers had to find a day that I, along with around a dozen participants, would all be able to go to theatre to see a show - or we could sign up to NT at Home and stream a production without ever having to leave the house.

And my first experience with NT at home began.

To call it a revelation would be to undersell just how many of the NT Live productions I currently have favourited waiting for a moment when I will be able to get around to actually watching them.

There are currently over 70 productions on the streaming site, with more being added by the month.

It’s become an important facility even though we are now allowed out of the house and that’s down to a number of reasons, chief among them is access to quality theatre. The fact is, it costs a fortune for most of us to see most National Theatre Productions. You’ve got to get to the South Bank in London, for a start; it’s a theatre for the nation, but it’s in a building on the banks of the Thames. Unless you’re at a matinee, travelling from Yorkshire means you’re likely to have to stay down in London, so there’s another expense - all before you’ve bought the ticket. This streaming service allows the viewer access to a seriously impressive roster of work from their front rooms.

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Emma Keith, Managing Director of Digital Media at the National Theatre, says: “It’s fantastic to be approaching our third birthday for NT at Home this autumn. Over 137 million minutes have been streamed by audiences from 184 countries all over the world, doubling the figures achieved in the platform’s first year. It has never been more important to create and share great theatre that sparks. We’re delighted to see how NT at home brings people together digitally in all corners of the UK and around the globe.”

There is an interesting blurring of the line between theatre and film with NT Live - it is far more complex than a single camera pointing at the stage. Zadie Smith’s new version of The Wife of Willesden, first produced by London’s Kiln Theatre, was the first production filmed specifically for NT at home off the National Theatre stages.

Recent titles also include The Seagull with Emilia Clarke, Blues for An Alabama Sky, with Samira Whiley and Much Ado About Nothing with Katherine Parkinson.

While it remains vital, particularly post-pandemic, that we support our theatres in the region, access to this kind of high quality work can only contribute to the appetite for good theatre.