Review: Australian Theatre Live & Emerald City

Australian Theatre Live has arrived and it’s the perfect compromise if you find yourself unable to go to the theatre for whatever reason (geographic, financial, Covid-19, etc).

The new theatrical streaming service takes it inspiration from the success of National Theatre Live in the UK, offering high quality video recordings of mainstage theatrical performances. The selection currently includes productions recorded in the last few years by companies like Sydney Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre Company and bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company.

The interface is sleek and easy to use, although I did wish it had an app to make viewing on-the-go easier. I also couldn’t get the captions working (although maybe that was just my browser). There is a good range of theatre and comedy performances that should keep viewers engaged for at least two months of regular viewing, and hopefully more, assuming the service is updated with new shows as time goes on.

The Australian Theatre Live interface

I watched Emerald City by David Williamson from Griffin’s 2014 season, filmed at the SBW Stables Theatre. The satire about a screenwriter struggling to decide between making “great art” and landing a waterfront Sydney property, was written in 1987 and re-programmed and directed by Lee Lewis in 2014.

The production quality is high, effortlessly cutting between shots like a film. The film direction was smooth and the shot list was well chosen. Audiences receive a range of perspectives of the action. The camera delivers close-up shots of key acting moments, and then pans out so that we can appreciate Lewis’ staging choices and Ken Done’s set design, which show off the iconic Sydney harbour in a unique way.

The recording opened with a clip of Lee Lewis (director and then-Artistic Director of Griffin) and David Williamson (playwright), reflecting on the play, why it was written in the 1980s and why it holds enduring relevance today. I enjoyed this touch, which served as a cinematic version of a writers notes and directors notes.

And Williamson and Lewis were correct: this play definitely has relevance today. Emerald City is a satirical take on the timeless conflict of the artist: to sell out and make money, or to live and die for your values, and make honourable art that no one ever watches.

In Williamson’s play, that dilemma is explored through Colin (a great Mitchell Butel), an acclaimed screenwriter who moves from Melbourne to Sydney in 1980s and has to reckon with the changing values and culture of the new city. His wife, Kate (Lucy Bell), also works in a creative industry as a book publisher, and has to grapple with similar dilemmas: to publish books that sell, or to publish books that are meaningful and important.

The playscript is very talky, and I loved the rapid pace of the back-and-forth, helmed by Lewis’ energetic direction. Although, as much as I enjoyed the play, I do wonder why Lewis chose to stage a 40-year-old play by Australia’s most famous playwright at Griffin, “the home of new Australian writing”. It’s a fun play, and I’m sure David Williamson’s name sold tickets. However, I can’t help but think about what a big opportunity it would have been to give a main stage slot to a young up-and-coming playwright who would have really appreciated it.

The digital theatre recording is a really fascinating hybrid medium that I’m sure will stick around for years to come. There’s a lot of interesting academic literature about digital theatre and I’ve previously written about the nature of ‘liveness’ in online performance here.

I’m really glad that a company like Australian Theatre Live exists, dedicated to making high quality content that’s physically and financially accessible for people who might otherwise not be able to go to the theatre.

Is it the same as going to the the theatre in person? Of course not. But if you separate that expectation, you can enjoy Australian Theatre Live recordings for what they are: not theatre, not cinema, but a third, hybrid medium.  

As can be expected with launching any new streaming platform, the hardest hurdle to overcome is securing the content. Currently there’s a good selection of plays and comedy performances with high production value that are well worth watching. I would definitely sign up for a short period (it costs $7.99 per month or $74.99 per year) and work my way through their catalogue. But once you watch all the shows on offer, I’m not sure it’s worth paying an ongoing fee.

My recommendation: get Australian Theatre Live for a month or two and watch as much as you can. It will be money well spent.

Jo Bradley

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