This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.MORE INFO
Menu Close

A round of applause erupted around the theatre. The actors took their bows on stage. You could feel the exhilaration in the air.

Except it wasn’t a theatre, it was a cinema. And the actors weren’t on stage, but on screen. Yet it very much felt like being in a theatre in London’s West End. This is NT Live, or National Theatre Live, where hit shows, starring big names from the big screen and from the stage, many of which are sold out months in advance, are beamed into audiences in cinemas around the world. And it’s been a phenomenon.

‘When we started NT Live, we wanted to give people access to our work who otherwise may not be able to see it,’ says Flo Buckeridge, a producer at the National Theatre. ‘It was a bit of an experiment but it was really well received, not just in the United Kingdom, but all over the world. Not everyone is able to get to the theatre and this way, we bring theatre to audiences.’

NT Live launched its pilot season in the UK in 2009 with Phèdre, which starred Helen Mirren. It was made available to audiences in 73 cinemas across the UK broadcast live from the theatre and 200 more around the world, which brought a growing global demand. Due to time differences international screenings were usually recordings rather than real time broadcasts, but this didn’t take away from the audience’s enjoyment and feeling of being there.

The success of NT Live meant other performance arts companies followed suit. While The Met in New York City had already been screening operas since 2006, The Royal Shakespeare Company debuted with Richard II starring David Tennant in 2013, and ballets from The Bolshoi launched in cinemas in 2014. More recently event cinema has expanded to include live sports broadcasts and music performances.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been a global hit

Event cinema arrived at AMC Cinemas in Hong Kong in 2011. ‘We seized the opportunity to explore different content from around the globe and to provide alternative entertainment to our audience so that when they come to our cinemas, there are not just movies they can choose from, but all kinds of recorded live performances,’ says Judith Kwong, AMC’s film booking manager.

Since 2011 the popularity – and awareness – of event cinema in Hong Kong has only grown. Each year sees more productions and a greater number of screenings, though in an attempt to garner full houses that recreate the theatre experience more realistically, they are still limited.

There are other ways that event cinema strives for authenticity, too. ‘We really try to get the atmosphere in the theatre to the viewers in the cinema,’ says Buckeridge. Ahead of an NT Live production, for example, there will be shots of the auditorium as people sit down, conveying the buzz of anticipation for what they are about to experience. There’s also a presenter in the theatre introducing the production. “We try to replicate the theatre experience as much as possible for our cinema audiences, and we’ve been told that people clap in the cinema along with the audience in the theatre.’

Benedict Cumberbatch has been one of the major drawcards in event cinema. Here he plays Hamlet

High-quality theatre companies are behind most of the content for event cinema, but much of the draw is also that the productions have received rave reviews and boast star-spangled casts. And they can be enjoyed from the comfort of an audience’s hometown. Event cinema also offers the chance for many theatre fans to achieve the impossible. For many people it was inconceivable that they might see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet in his 12-week run as the title character in 2015 at the Barbican in London – a year ahead, advance tickets were sold out in minutes and it was declared the fastest-selling ticket in London theatre history. But when the production was later screened by NT Live, it was seen by around 800,000 people across the world, and remains the most-viewed NT Live broadcast.

Perhaps the greatest achievement is that screening stage productions in the cinema has not been to the detriment of people actually going to the theatre. ‘We’ve found that seeing an NT Live encourages people to see more live theatre and performance generally, and that’s really one of our main aims,’ says Buckeridge.

Left: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Right: Ian McKellen as King Lear in 2017. Image courtesy of National Theatre Live

Every year Bolshoi Ballet and NT Live launch a new set of productions. NT Live recently screened the powerful and critically acclaimed Yerma starring Billie Piper, and Angels in America Part One and Two with Andrew Garfield. The current season includes productions of King Lear starring Ian McKellen and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which will hopefully make their way onto Hong Kong’s screens. The 2017-2018 season for Bolshoi Ballet includes Giselle featuring acclaimed dancers Svetlana Zakharova and Sergei Polunin, Coppélia and The Flames of Paris.

While such productions may not be a total substitute for the live show, when you're on the other side of the world and may not have the opportunity to see the shows that are raved about, it’s an affordable alternative – and a hugely enjoyable one.

AMC Cinemas screens events from ballet, opera and theatre to rock concerts, with some of the most advanced audio tech in Asia and yummy treats from classics to canapés.