Online or In-Person? Soon, British Theatergoers Can Decide

LONDON — Is watching a play on your laptop enough? This question will be put to the test starting May 17, when theaters in England reopen after a five-month shutdown.

Some shows here are experimenting with filmed versions in advance of — or to run alongside — the same play in three dimensions, offering a choice to possibly skittish audiences who may be wary of entering a theater.

When Ben Brown’s spy drama “A Splinter of Ice” begins a tour of British theaters on June 8, those who wish to can see it live, as long as they wear masks and maintain social distancing, for the first part of its travels at least. (Such protocol may change from June 21 onward, as the British move still further out of lockdown.) For everyone else, a filmed version, running online through July 31, was shot on the stage of the Everyman Theater in Cheltenham, England. It stars the same distinguished pair of actors, Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer, who will take the play out on the road.

The actor Jack Holden’s feisty performance in his self-penned play “Cruise” was available online through April, in a film shot in the East End, across town from the Soho district where it is set. Holden will return to the show at the Duchess Theater, on the West End, from May 18, hoping that the play’s online run has raised awareness of its onward life onstage.

Of course, none of this is new. The 2012 National Theater production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was shown in movie theaters around the world via NT Live long before it opened on Broadway, where it ran for two years and won five Tony Awards: The screen version surely whetted New York appetites.

The difference this time is that many potential audience members will be wary about sitting in crowded auditoriums. These new streamed productions offer a choice — and an additional income source as well.

Other British playhouses, including the Almeida and the Orange Tree Theater, both in London, also plan to present works both ways. The risk is, however, that the filmed version will seem sufficient and dampen the desire to experience it onstage.

“A Splinter of Ice,” set in Moscow in 1987, tells of an encounter between the novelist Graham Greene, then in his 80s, and the British intelligence officer Kim Philby, who died the following year, at age 76, 25 years after he defected to the Soviet Union. An armchair drama heavy on exposition, Brown’s play doesn’t feel especially theatrical and works fine as an onscreen vehicle for its two splendid leading men.

Ford Davies, 81, brings a world-weary geniality to the role of Greene, who functions for the most part as an interlocutor trying to make sense of Philby, the onetime journalist who was part of the celebrated British spy ring known as the Cambridge Five.

Boxer, his co-star, finds a prickly intelligence in the role of Philby, who refers to himself as “the most wanted man in England” and who, the play suggests, may have been the inspiration for the “third man” of Greene’s 1950 novel. Lovely as it is to see seasoned actors in the flesh, the screen version gives a gratifying close-up view of Ford Davies’s kind, quizzical eyes. The writing is labored at times, but its stars give it a lift, and a heavily accented Sara Crowe completes the cast as Philby’s wife, Rufa, a role that will be re-cast for the tour.

“Cruise,” on the other hand, is a far more visceral piece of writing, and its online version makes you want to partake of Holden’s enthusiasm firsthand. A springy study in London gay life in the 1980s and today, the 90-minute play tells of an L.G.B.T. help line volunteer in his early 20s. Accompanied onscreen in a nonspeaking role by sound designer John Elliott, who spins the disco tracks (Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” for one) of a bygone age, the character of Jack gets absorbed in the elaborate story of a decades-older caller named Michael. This unseen character, voiced by Holden, has made his way through the fearsome years of the AIDS epidemic, even as many around him have not, and wants to enlighten Jack about the hedonistic days (and nights) of an era unknown to the younger man.

At times, the play feels like an English footnote to “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s two-part glance back at the losses of a generation of gay American men, and few could claim that Holden’s writing, however vivid, breaks new ground. But watching the author dart about onscreen leaves you keen to be in the same room with that bristling energy. In a few weeks, we’ll be able to do just that.


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