Did you know that the English National Opera (ENO), National Theatre and others show live and 'encore' screenings of their productions in cinemas across the country? It's a convenient alternative to the real thing.
Tonight, at the Phoenix Picturehouse, I saw Gilbert and Sullivan's classic comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, freshly directed by Mike Leigh. It tells the story of a young man called Frederic, apprenticed since childhood to a band of gentlemanly pirates. Released from his indentureship on his 21st birthday, he tries to follow a more honourable path, meeting a host of improbable characters on the way, and even falls in love - only to find that he is in fact a leap year baby, which means that he must return to the pirates for another 63 years.
Premiered in New York in 1879, with a London debut shortly after, The Pirates of Penzance has played successfully on both sides of the pond. It might seem a bit odd that Mike Leigh, a film director famed for his unrelenting portrayals of life - the diva of Brit Grit, if you like - should turn his hand to comic opera. Whatever the reason for this unlikely pairing, Leigh is apparently a longstanding fan of G&S; although he edited the libretto, removing clunky gags and some of the more obscure references, he said he had made this production "camp-free" to reflect his deep respect for the operetta.
The set was infused with Leigh's characteristic austerity. Yet the performance itself felt uncharacteristically strait-laced; despite some superb performances (in particular, from Robert Murray, who plays Frederic, Rebecca de Pont Davies, who plays his maid Ruth, and Claudia Boyle his sweetheart Mabel), I almost would have preferred some campness to redeem the borderline depressing misogyny that blunders through the script.
When you see an opera in the cinema, your experience will be different from that of a stage audience. The set is magnified, and sounds may be amplified or distorted; this can be good or bad. Tonight, unfortunately, the audio was disrupted in the first half, and following the plot, which relies so heavily on being able to hear the words, became tricky. It was rectified in the second half, though, with some lovely ice cream to make up for it.
I like the concept of showing live or recorded theatre in a cinema. The involvement of audio and video, in addition to the performance itself, adds an extra layer of risk, and sometimes things go wrong. I saw a National Theatre performance here a little while ago, and there were no issues; I was enthralled. If what these new ventures are giving us are greater access to the arts, while at the same time redefining the cinematic experience, then I think it's a risk worth taking.