Shakespeare’s Leaders - why a world at war needs The Bard more than ever

This week, Helen Hawkins examines William Shakespeare's 'leaders'. How do the characteristics of some of his greatest leaders resonate in contemporary society, and why should we learn from their actions in exploring the state of the world today?…

Shakespeare’s Leaders - why a world at war needs The Bard more than ever


A misogynistic sexist, a racist colonialist, a hopeless imperialist…? Poor old William Shakespeare, who turns 458 years old on April 23 2022. Like many playgoers, I have watched his currency rise and fall over the years. Currently he is regarded in some quarters as less of a draw than a hot young playwright tackling today’s buzzword issues. Theatre companies do their utmost to freshen him up with diverse casting, gender-flipping, modern dress and a hip-hop vibe; rising stars still want to sink their teeth into his juicy lead roles. Yet he is still vulnerable to attack. If you look at him through an unforgiving 2022 filter, he will inevitably be found wanting, a writer whose values might seem out of joint.


I was reminded of today’s arguments about the Bard’s shortcomings when I was reading recent reviews of Henry V at London’s Donmar Warehouse, with Kit Harington, late of Westeros, in the title role. It’s apparently a zippy modern-dress affair, though not the first to depict young Prince Hal as a modern-day warrior by any means. In my own lifetime, I have seen Michael Pennington with a semi-automatic weapon cheered on by an army of skinhead soccer hooligans, and Adrian Lester in desert camouflage fatigues, in both cases in productions that explicitly referenced recent conflicts (the Falklands war, the Iraq war).


What struck me, though, was not the updated historical burden the play can be made to carry but — and this is one of the reasons many people do still treasure Shakespeare — the way he can still come through loud and clear from the 16th century on the key issues in our lives. Laurence Olivier’s film of the play in 1944 used Henry V as the basis of a rousing patriotic blast, yet it is more interestingly about the complicated qualities great leadership demands — especially the role-playing the leader must engage in, to appear omnipotent when he feels anything but. Hal is no jingoistic advertisement but a canny study in kingship.


Was there ever a playwright who tried harder to understand what makes a great leader tick? Shakespeare’s plays are full of strong men, some brought low and intent on revenge, like Prospero in The Tempest, some brought low by their own ambitions, like Macbeth. In most of his plays, characters will be complaining about having to “act" roles to survive or win back their old status, from Rosalind’s boy in As You Like It to Edgar’s Fool in King Lear. But acting a part brings better results for them than nakedly showing their hand, unlike Lear, who tragically discovers why  candour isn’t clever when he tries to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters. 


For Prince Hal, too, acting a role is key to his ability to lead. As a young man he rubs shoulders in taverns with ordinary mortals. Even as king, he creeps around his army’s camp at night in disguise, to gauge the temper of his troops. I couldn’t help thinking of Ukraine’s beleaguered president, an actual actor who turned politician when a TV series suggested how well he might carry off the role. Under attack, he has shown his mettle but still with the common touch that had appealed to the voters -- a seemingly ordinary man in a T-shirt with an unshaved face who can engage with his fellow Ukrainians, citizen to citizen.


But Shakespeare’s history plays also suggest this facility as an actor can have a darker side. Hal’s transformation into a king in Henry IV part 2 is at the expense of his friendship with that roguish force of nature Sir John Falstaff, whom he coldly and publicly cuts out of his life, one of the saddest scenes in Shakespeare. By Henry V, this Janus-faced approach has become a defining feature of his kingship: I don’t think I am alone in suspecting Shakespeare knew he had to humanise Hal by adding an odd coda to the main action, the lightly comic scene where he woos Katherine of France.


The disguised Henry tells his troops he is just a man like any other, yet when they admit they fear for their lives in the coming combat, his response is to dismissively trot out arguments for why their king is right to demand their loyalty and is not ultimately responsible for their deaths. Once alone again, though, as a mere man, he tears into his own frailties, the burdens he shoulders as a king that ordinary men never have to bear. You can’t help imagining that Zelensky’s most private thoughts run along the same lines.


Henry V is presented overall as a man of integrity, his duplicity a necessary disguise. Think back to Richard III, though, an actor-king with these same abilities to act a part — in his case, to shield his base ambitions — and you find a portrait of a ruler who beguiles and browbeats all around him and becomes a ruthless monster, an appalling infanticide. You don’t have to think much beyond President Zelensky to arrive at men who have crossed this line into autocracy, and nobody more obviously than his adversary in the Kremlin. And as we are discovering, he’s been a successful dissembler all his working life, cosying up to the world’s leaders while plotting against them.


I’d say we need Shakespeare more than ever.


Stars of the Screen on Digital Theatre - Part 3

Stars of the Screen - Part 3
Hannah Khalique-Brown's engaging series becomes a trilogy. In the third instalment of her 'Stars of the Screen' exploration, find out about some stars of TV and Film who have made history onstage...…


In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we delved into some of our favourite stars of the screen in the Digital Theatre catalogue, from Doctor Who favourites Tennant and Tate to Harry Potter castmates Zoë Wannamaker and Toby Jones, star of The Hobbit Richard Armitage and the late, great, legendary Sir Antony Sher to name a few. There is a thrill in performing to a live audience; anything can happen, every night is different, there is a palpable energy in the air and the connection between actor and audience lifts performances to new heights. This feeling has consistently drawn actors back to the stage, where they often first learned their craft.

In this third instalment of this series, we’ll be exploring three more stars of the screen who just can’t keep away from the stage. Most famous for their award-winning performances in classics such as Atonement, The Crown, Killing Eve, Succession, Black Mirror, and I May Destroy You) the stars of this piece have one thing in common: they have all made history with groundbreaking Shakespearan performances onstage. 

These three serve as pioneers of their craft, questioning audience perceptions of what’s possible in these landmark productions, and challenging the narrative of what we expect when we think of Shakespeare. Each piece of work radically reimagines some of the Bard’s most famous plays, with five-star reviews and vast critical acclaim. From established legends to the next generation of emerging actors, read on to see how your favourite stars of the screen made history on stage, (and how you can watch their performances on Digital Theatre).

Dame Harriet Walter in Phyllida Lloyd's Shakespeare Trilogy

Fans will recognise this Digital Theatre star from both the big screen and a wealth of British and US television series. Dame Harriet Walter has starred in box office successes such as Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning Atonement, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Rocketman, as well as establishing a vast television career in the UK and beyond. The award-winning actress has featured in British favourites such as Law and Order: UK, The Crown, and Downton Abbey, and recently won over American audiences as the Russian mentor to Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in multi-award-winning Killing Eve, Lady Caroline Collingwood in HBO’s major hit series Succession, and Deborah in Emmy Award-winning Ted Lasso. She is currently starring in the BBC’s This Is Going To Hurt, alongside Ben Whishaw. But Walter’s stage career is just as vast, having performed on some of the West End’s greatest stages, transferring shows to New York’s Broadway, and being an Associate Artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1987, picking up an Olivier Award and both CBE and DBE honours along the way. However, Walter made history when she starred in Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy - three productions across five years, with an entirely female ensemble, set in a women’s prison.

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy was composed of Julius Caesar in 2012, Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016. These groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed productions were set in a women’s prison, with an ethnically diverse cast, and received scores of five star reviews, from outlets such as The Observer who stated it was ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’. 

The theatre filming of Walter’s Brutus in Julius Caesar was selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 and nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film. The second instalment featured Walter in the titular role of Henry IV, and the final production saw her starring as Prospero in an all-female The TempestThe Guardian’s Lyn Gardner gave the entire trilogy five stars and wrote that ‘Harriet Walter is mesmerising in one play after another, bringing her classical training to bear as a conflicted Brutus, then a Henry IV who wears his crown heavily, and finally a Prospero who knows that the steel bars of prison are resistant to all magic.’ 

Fans of Walter’s screen work can expect to see her in her element as she commands the stage and leads the ensemble with power and fierce vulnerability, connecting with us through an art-form of which she is a master. This critical and commercial hit made history with its casting and reimagining, but if you weren’t there to see it, fear not: Digital Theatre has made each of these trailblazing productions ready to watch here.

Maxine Peake - Hamlet

At the same time as Dame Harriet Walter taking on Brutus, fellow British screen icon Makine Peake similarly made history on the UK stage. Peake has had a vast career on our screens, making an impression in the iconic Victoria Wood 90s sitcom ‘dinnerladies’, which was followed by a series regular role in the Channel 4 comedy drama Shameless. Further stand-out TV credits include the BBC series Silk, ITV’s Anne, a guest episode of international hit Black Mirror and the BBC’s Rules of The Game. She’s also shone on the big screen, playing roles in movies such as The Theory of Everything alongside Eddie Redmayne, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and as the lead in British comedy drama Funny Cow. Peake’s theatre credits are just as impressive, having performed across UK stages consistently throughout her career and becoming an Associate Artist of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2013. It was at this venue the following year that Peake took on the titular role in a radical, in-the-round staging of Hamlet.

Director Sarah Frankcom cast Peake in the Shakespearean classic as the first female Hamlet in 35 years in the UK. Tickets to see Peake’s Hamlet were in such high demand that the run was extended, with Frankcom stating it was "the theatre's fastest-selling show in a decade", which received numerous five star reviews from critics. One such review came from The Times' Dominic Maxwell, who said "It is not the performance you expect [...] It is, however, a stunningly good one. [...] Peake and co make this 400-year-old revenge tragedy come alive in a way you've never seen before." In The Guardian, Michael Billington claimed Peake’s was, "an excellent Hamlet [...] a fine performance that confirms [her] capacity for emotional directness and a fierce, uncensored honesty". 

Peake started her acting career at the Royal Exchange's youth theatre, and made history as Hamlet on the very same stage. Fans loved seeing Peake take on such an iconic male role, bringing her authenticity and natural wit to the part, showcasing her talent in a totally new light. This radical reimagining of Hamlet is available to watch on Digital Theatre today. 

Paapa Essiedu - Hamlet 

Another actor who made history whilst playing Hamlet was Paapa Essiedu. Whilst most of the stars we’ve found in the Digital Theatre catalogue have been long-established acting legends, Paapa Essiedu represents the next generation of up and coming British stars of the screen. In 2017, Essiedu featured in the TV miniseries The Miniaturist alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, the film Murder on the Orient Express, and in 2018 was chosen as a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. But he shot to fame upon the release of Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking 2020 BBC and HBO series I May Destroy You, for which he was nominated for both BAFTA and Emmy Awards for his leading role. Following this, he’s featured as George Boleyn in Anne Boleyn (2021), and stars as the lead in forthcoming Sky TV series Extinction and Season Two of BBC1 drama The Capture

But Essiedu’s career began on stage, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012. Since then, he’s appeared on some of the UK’s most prestigious stages, including the National Theatre and the Royal Court. In 2014, the rising star performed in Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear, playing Burgundy and understudying Edmund. When the actor playing Edmund lost his voice in the middle of a performance, Essiedu stepped in and played the role to great acclaim. An article from the RSC says of this experience: “But it was one night only. Paapa says the seven and a half months spent watching mature actors who were so at ease on stage (Simon Russell Beale, Stephen Boxer and Sam Troughton) were much more important to his development as an actor.”

The next stage of Essiedu’s development came in 2016, when he played Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He made history in becoming the first black Hamlet at the RSC, alongside an outstanding ensemble of predominantly black talent. He spoke about the experience of taking on such an iconic character, saying in an RSC blog that “You have to get the timing right in the soliloquies [...] As you share your thought process with the audience, you have to take your time to give it truth but if you ponder too long you risk boring them.” His performance certainly didn’t bore critic Michael Billington, who wrote in The Guardian that: ‘he is an intensely likeable Hamlet. He is young, quick-witted and, even in his rootless uncertainty, sportive [...] he dons a paint-daubed suit and goes around doing subversive graffiti and big, splashy canvases [...] Essiedu has a priceless vitality, speaks the verse intelligently and catches the contradictions of [Hamlet].” 

After a wave of five star reviews, Esseidu went on to win ‘Best Performance in a Play’ at the UK Theatre Awards for his role and it was recognised as part of his win of the prestigious 2016 Ian Charleson Award. Thankfully, this iconic performance was captured live and is available to view on Digital Theatre today - so if you missed you can still watch Paapa Esseidu’s fresh and quick-witted Hamlet today. 

Curtain Down 

As the curtain comes down, we hope you’ve enjoyed our 3-part tour of Digital Theatre’s stars of the screen. There’s nothing quite like seeing these screen legends reaching new heights in live performances, truly in their element onstage. No matter what the glamour of film and television may offer, it’s clear they’ll always crave the energy of a live audience and the thrill of possibilities onstage, and just can’t keep away from it. And who better to make history by challenging audiences’ expectations right in the moment, and expanding our perceptions of characters and stories, than some of the best of British talent - from established legends to breakout stars. 

Rest assured, we’ll continue to be there to capture it. So, sit back, enter your own digital theatre, and enjoy your favourite stars playing defining roles of their career onstage on Digital Theatre today!


The Oscar voters adore Spielberg’s West Side Story: why don’t I?

Into The Woods - Digital Theatre
In this article, Helen Hawkins explores the latest wave of filmed musicals - from Spielberg's West Side Story to the blockbuster adaptation of the Hamilton stage show. Are musicals on film the 'new normal', or do audiences still crave the stage?…

The Oscar voters adore Spielberg’s West Side Story: why don’t I?

Before I was 10 I could sing whole musicals — South Pacific, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Boy Friend — all the soundtracks I ingested from my parents’ record collection, my appetite boosted by the glut of film musicals we could catch on television. So the coming London theatre season is fine by me. South Pacific, Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady are on their way, for starters, in sparkling new productions. 

Also in the pipeline are some 20 new film musicals; that is, films that are not simply filmed performances but cinema versions of existing pieces. Matilda is due by Christmas, others are years away. Some are Disney’s latest live-action reruns of animated musicals, others presumably in the same vein as In the Heights, Steven Spielberg’s revamp of West Side Story, the new Cyrano, not to mention all those Hollywood classics I saw as a child: that is, musicals revisioned for the big screen.

Many of these upcoming film musicals are based on big hits — Spamalot, Guys and DollsFollies, Little Shop of Horrors. But not necessarily as we know them. And this is where things start to grow murky for me. The producers of the new Matilda film, for example, have decided its Agatha Trunchbull will be played by a woman, not an actor having the time of his life in a skirt (Bertie Carvel will forever win my Funniest Moment in a Musical award for his wild vault into the wings in the gym scene). The film Agatha will be Emma Thompson, and splendid she will doubtless be, but the delicious British pantomime flavour of the piece will have been lost, as too, presumably, will supremely theatrical moments like the children swinging out to the audience to When I Grow Up or throwing a small child high up into the flies. 

Today’s cinema has very different conventions. It likes to deal in ultra-realism, even when its fakery is at its most intense, perfecting its SFX so that ageing an actor to pass muster onscreen is child’s play, as is “painting” in whole backgrounds with CGI. It can also do ultra-surrealism, like the eye-popping special effects in In the Heights, where characters duet while walking up walls.

Spielberg’s West Side Story, though, now garlanded with seven Oscar nominations, is where my reservations about film musicals really started to crystallise. This is one of my top five musicals, an indestructible gem, luckily. 

At first I couldn’t work out why the film wasn’t working that well for me. Maybe because the Sharks and Jets were portentously squaring up to the march of history and the developers’ wrecking balls, not just each other’s fists and knives? Then I read Anthony Lane’s excellent New Yorker review of the film, and he nailed it for me: what Spielberg has chosen to show, graphically, is the reality of the musical’s terrain, its social deprivation and, especially, its bloody violence, where characters land sickening punches and bleed when shot or stabbed — and the two genres, film and musical, become an uneasy fit here.

All art forms — theatre, opera, ballet — live in their own generic worlds, with their own conventions: we accept those without seeing them as a limitation. Characters may fight and die onstage in West Side Story, and I will be just as moved by their confected deaths if played — and sung — right as I would be by a more realistic treatment, with spurts of gore and deafening gunfire. Because ultimately the point of a musical is, um, the music.

I realised a totally set-less staging of West Side Story would still transport me to its world of slum tenements and cops with nightsticks. Sondheim put the references your mind’s eye needs into his lyrics; Jerome Robbins’s choreography infused the characters with vitality and humour; and, above all, Leonard Bernstein’s score evoked a place of ominous spells of calm, broken by that eerie whistling, the thunderous fights and passionate dances. 

I am not saying all film musicals should be filmed musicals — authentic versions of the piece, shot live in a theatre, like the Hamilton film. But what I won’t get in a cinema is the sheer excitement of the performers being right there in front of us, singing their hearts out undubbed, while hoofing and jumping, with no edits to cut out any fluffs. 

Handled intelligently, the film musical can be a wonderful thing (my top five would be Cabaret, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing in the Rain, Top Hat and South Pacific). I can’t help seeing the gusto with which film musicals are being cranked out now as a sign of a panicked industry in pursuit of a guaranteed audience, not necessarily the advancement of a wonderful art form. I can’t blame them, but I still hope I am wrong.


Stars of the Screen on Digital Theatre – part 2

In Part 2 of this series of Digital Theatre's alumni who are also stars of the big screen, we look into the stage careers of Toby Jones, Andrew Lincoln, Hugh Quarshie and Sir Antony Sher.…

In Part 1 of this series, we delved into the Digital Theatre catalogue to find stars of the screen, from Doctor Who’s David Tennant and Catherine Tate and Harry Potter’s Zoë Wannamaker, to The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage. In Part 2, we’ve got even more Digital Theatre screen legends on stage coming up, including stars of Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, Sherlock, and Star Wars to name a few. 

What connects all of these onscreen stars is their love of theatre and constant return to the stage, be it due to the exhilarating feeling of performing to a live audience, the interaction and energy shared between actor and audience bringing performances to new heights, or the constant possibility of discoveries, surprises, and indeed mishaps, that comes with live performance. Their sold-out, critically-acclaimed performances are all available on Digital Theatre, so you can watch them today from the comfort of your sofa. Read on and see if your favourite star is among them …

Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln in Parlour Song

Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln are both true stars of the screen respectively. Jones is known for his performances in blockbuster movies such as Claudius Templesmith in the Hunger Games franchise, Mr Eversoll in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and as villainous Arnim Zola in Marvel’s Captain America movies. The BAFTA-winning actor has also graced our TV screens frequently throughout his career, appearing in British favourites such as Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Poirot. One thing fans of Toby Jones may have missed however, is his iconic voiceover performance as Dobby in the Harry Potter films! As well as having had a prolific onscreen career, Jones is also a great lover of theatre, and won an Olivier Award for his performance in The Play What I Wrote

Andrew Lincoln, meanwhile, is a famous face you might also recognise from some iconic on-screen performances. Fans loved him in his breakout role in the 90s BBC drama This Life, but he gained wider recognition as Mark in the classic rom-com Love Actually and reached international fame when he took on the lead role of Rick Grimes in the global smash-hit series The Walking Dead, for which he won various awards and nominations across nine seasons.

Like Jones, Lincoln has returned to theatre again and again, and the pair starred in the acclaimed performance of Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2009. The play follows Ned (played by Jones), his discontented wife, Joy, and their neighbour, Dale (played by Lincoln) in an exploration of the madness and melancholy of suburbia. 

Toby Jones received rave reviews for his performance, with The Guardian’s Michael Billington writing that “Butterworth's play has a wild, contrapuntal humour beautifully articulated by Toby Jones's Ned [...] Jones's performance defines the tragi-comic nature of Butterworth's play” and audiences loved seeing Andrew Lincoln as never before: with shaved head, gold chains, and as Alice Jones of The Independent put it, in “an ostentatious rude-boy get-up”. 

This sharply funny and emotionally intense production was captured live by Digital Theatre, so you can catch these two screen stars delivering their critically-celebrated stage performance today

Hugh Quarshie - RSC's Othello

Our next star of the screen is Hugh Quarshie. He is known for starring as Captain Quarsh Panaka in the iconic 1999 epic Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in a star-studded cast featuring Liam Neeson, Ewen McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson and Kiera Knightley to name a few. More recent film credits include Red Sparrow (2018) with Jennifer Lawrence, but Quarshie has an even longer list of television credits to his name, including a whopping 505 episodes as Ric Griffin in BBC1’s iconic series Holby City. He’s also more recently appeared in British favourite Doctor Who, BBC2 drama White Heat, Amazon series Absentia, and ITV miniseries Stephen

But the theatre has been a home to Quarshie repeatedly throughout his career, having played iconic stages such as The Swan, The Barbican, The Royal Exchange, and frequently taking on lead roles on Royal Shakespeare Company stages, becoming an Associate Artist in 2005. Speaking to the RSC about how it felt to join the company in 1981, he said “The classical theatre, as I thought, was the ultimate test of an actor’s ability: if you could master Shakespeare, you could master anything.”

Quarshie proved himself a master of his craft in his portrayal of Othello in 2015, in a groundbreaking production from the RSC. Quarshie took the titular role, playing alongside Lucian Msamati who made history as the first black Iago on the Stratford stage. This reimagined, modern-dress production totally won over audiences and critics alike; the play won rave reviews, with The Guardian’s Michael Billington saying in “Iqbal Khan’s gripping production [...] Hugh Quarshie is an excellent Othello [... in] a production that makes us see a familiar tragedy from a totally fresh perspective”. Since then, the production has achieved iconic status, becoming the subject of countless articles, academic papers, and theatrical references. Quarshie himself has admitted that “It is fair to say that the production was acclaimed, with some people talking of it as a landmark, even a ‘game-changer’.” 

Those of you who missed this stunning production with Hugh Quarshie in Othello are in luck: Digital Theatre is home to a live filming, ready to watch today.

Sir Antony Sher in Primo

The late Sir Antony Sher was an extraordinary actor of both stage and screen, his long career celebrated for its astonishing artistic variety and achievement. Sher’s work in television includes the lead role in classic 1981 BBC drama The History Man, 2008 BBC television play God On Trial, and most recently in eight-part BBC2 drama The Shadow Line. His film work included roles in movies such as 1997 drama Mrs Brown playing opposite Judi Dench and Billy Connoly, The Wolfman (2010) alongside Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt, 2014 political drama War Book, and as Thráin II, father of Thorin Oakenshield (played by fellow Digital Theatre star Richard Armitage) in the extended edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. 

But Sher is perhaps most celebrated for his astounding career in British theatre, having performed on almost every prestigious stage in the UK, including countless appearances at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, The Barbican, the Royal Court, and almost every stage in the West End. The two-time Olivier Award winner and four-time nominee consistently delivered extraordinary performances throughout his career, becoming an icon of British theatre. The Guardian’s Michael Coveney wrote that Sher as Macbeth, playing opposite fellow Digital Theatre star Harriet Walter, “was the best RSC pairing since Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in 1976” which reflected Sher’s complete mastery of the Shakespearean classics.

Not only did Sir Antony Sher act, but he also wrote, including the 2004 one-man show Primo, set in Auschwitz and based on the writings of Primo Levi from his arrest until his liberation from the camp. The piece was praised for its unapologetic honesty and quiet outrage, with Ben Brantley from the New York Times writing that “The great accomplishment of Sir Antony, [...] and his director, Richard Wilson, is that they have translated this act of remembering into an expressly theatrical language that never sensationalises, never lectures and never begs for pity.” 

Sher performed Primo, earning almost exclusively five star reviews for this astonishing piece of work. Michael Billington of The Guardian described the production as “unforgettable” and as having “aesthetic tact and imaginative sobriety” in a show where “nothing is done to "theatricalise" the story”. Sher won the Drama Desk Award for ‘Outstanding One-Person Show’ for Primo, and from the live digital recording of the show, he was nominated for a ‘Best Actor’ BAFTA. 

Digital Theatre is proud to have recently been made home to the live capture of the outstanding Primo, available to watch today. 

To conclude…

So far in this series, we’ve discovered that some of our favourite stars of the screen just can’t keep away from the stage, enthralled by the thrill of live performance, their characters finding themselves anew on stage every night, the possibilities of surprises and mishaps, and the powerful live connection between actor and audience. 

Keep an eye out for a truly star-studded Part 3 of this article series, with a special focus on stars of the screen making history onstage, coming soon… But for now: don’t wait around - get watching! Check out some of these five-star stage productions on Digital Theatre now! 


Do we still want theatres? or just Theatre?

In her latest blog piece for Digital Theatre, Helen Hawkins reflects on the theatrical 'experience'; has it changed dramatically over the years? And how is the experience developing in a post-Covid world?…

The restrictions are over, the mandatory masks are coming off — but will we embrace theatre-going as readily as we did before? A survey of audience members by Purple Seven, published in the new year suggested only 28% were optimistic about 2022 seeing a return to “normal”. The under-40s were the most optimistic, and 84% of all ages polled said they planned to go to some kind of indoor performance this year. But note, that category also included cinema and music. Not a ringing endorsement of theatre-going, I fear.

Those, like me, for whom Theatre is a lifelong passion don’t need telling to return. Since the start of the year, I have been among packed audiences lapping up a refreshing range of performances: puppet tigers in the West End, actors skiing down the aisles at the Donmar Warehouse, daredevil acrobats at the Royal Festival Hall. Theatre is still on its knees financially, but there are a few green shoots.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that our idea of theatre — what it is and, equally important, where and how it happens — could usefully pause for a rethink. (That’s not just because returning to the cramped conditions in many older venues, with their iffy sightlines and lack of lavatories, is a bit of a shock.) 

The lockdowns were a great preparation for deck-clearing, in fact. When our theatres became what we could see on a screen at home, the theatre world performed miniature marvels. Casts became crew and set up recording studios in their bathrooms, lit shots with the flashlight on their phones, found ingenious things to do with Zoom. Some of my favourite drama in that period deployed all these new skills — the BBC’s Zoom comedy Staged; the ingenious short plays in BBC4’s Unprecedented series and ITV’s Isolation Stories; online, Reset the Stage, produced by the Mono Box, which commissioned seven playlets and filmed them in deserted theatres; Birdsong, from the Original Theatre Company, which managed to convey the heft of the Sebastian Faulks trenches novel in a brilliant patchwork of monologues.

But long before the virus made this kind of reinvention a necessity, theatre had already started to leave the building — traditional ones, anyway. Think of it as the Edinburgh Fringe model. Got a great stage piece? Put it on wherever you can pitch your producing tent. The Botanical Gardens, a children’s playground, an old building where damp runs down the walls, the back of a taxi, somebody’s front room. 

Companies like Punchdrunk have really run with this ball, taking over whole buildings and leaving the audience to wander around them and create their own version of the play being performed. Thanks to outfits like Artangel and Artichoke, we are now used to seeing giant puppets parading across whole countries, drawing huge, happy crowds. The Multi-Story Orchestra, founded in 2011, performs concerts in parking lots; the Cardboard Citizens company, set up to create drama for the homeless, is even older — I first saw one of its productions in 2001, a brilliant version of the WW2 spy hoax Operation Mincemeat staged in an empty London building. Anything goes. (Just please don’t call it “immersive”: all good drama is immersive.)

Audiences have changed, too. My earliest memories of a big-theatre visit as a nine-year-old (the London Coliseum) involve a Sunday-best outfit just to sit in ‘the gods’. For many now, playgoing has shifted from this kind of dress-up-nice night out with a box of chox into a smart-casual sort of leisure activity; there’s still a sense of occasion but a lot of the swank has gone. That’s not such a bad thing, as it seems to suggest theatre is part of our daily round, not just a luxurious treat (though there’s also the danger that patrons will increasingly confuse theatres with the cinema — which are already confused by some with their front room, where they freely munch and swig and chatter. And regularly check their phones).  

So when the inevitable call came for us to go back to the theatre, I had heretical thoughts. Of course I want to see stirring drama — but less and less in a conventional proscenium-arch theatre. I love venues like the Young Vic and the National Theatre Dorfman that regularly redeploy their space to suit a new production, one visit in the round, the next a traverse staging, and so on. Each time, a new space.

And I realised that the pandemic has rebooted me as a spectator: I live alone so my lockdown TV drama-watching was a focused one-to-one experience. I miss that in a theatre now — unless the production is so riveting that it hushes the entire audience. I won’t be jaunting off to the metaverse any day soon, which seems the ultimate in one-to-one drama-watching. But I bet I am not alone in wishing I had the whole auditorium to myself. 


Stars of the Screen on Digital Theatre, part 1

The British theatre industry nurtures some of the greatest actors in the world who then go on to take the screen by storm. Read here about the theatre and screen careers of Richard Armitage, Zoe Wannamaker, David Tennant and Catherine Tate.…

Stars of the Screen on Digital Theatre

Did you know that some of your favourite stars of the screen learned their craft on the stage? In fact, the theatre is where many screen actors first discover their passion, build up their technique, and feel truly at home. The British theatre industry is known for nurturing some of the greatest performers in the world, who go on to take the screen by storm, yet return again and again to the stage throughout their careers.

The Digital Theatre catalogue is full to the brim of theatrical performances from stars of TV and film returning to the stage: fans of Harry PotterKilling Eve, I May Destroy You, and The Hobbit to name a few, will find their favourite actors leading five-star and sold-out shows captured by Digital Theatre.

So why the theatre?

Many actors find nothing can replace the feeling of performing to a live audience. In the theatre, there is an energy that can’t be found on a film set; the audience is right there with the actors, and performers can feel their presence, attention, and reactions. The interaction and energy shared between actor and audience can bring comedic timing alive and elevate dramatic performances to new heights. Stage actors must also be quick on their feet, as if anything goes wrong, the director can’t call ‘cut’ and edit mistakes out later. The nature of live performance means that lost props, dropped cues, and costume malfunctions are all live too - the show must go on! But this is another reason why so many actors can’t keep away from the stage: no two performances are the same. Audiences respond in different ways, and surprises or mistakes keep actors on their toes whilst staying in character every night. Jeopardy is the lifeblood of theatre!

Digital Theatre is the online home of performances from a host of bona fide silver screen stars. Is your favourite among them…?

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing

David Tennant has been celebrated on-screen for his role in BAFTA-winning Broadchurch, Emmy-winning performance in Des, and appearances in the Harry Potter films. Similarly, The Catherine Tate Show charmed the nation and cemented Tate as an icon of British TV. But these two stars of the screen are perhaps best known for their collaboration on Dr Who, as The Doctor and Donna Noble. If you thought the Tennant-Tate era would end there, then think again... 

A year after their final episode aired, the pair took to the West End to perform a sold-out run of Much Ado About NothingIt received rave reviews, with The Guardian’s Michael Billington claiming the two on-stage "is a marriage that, if not made in heaven … pays off superbly.” 

So what can audiences expect from watching their favourite time-travellers on-stage? Tennant says theatre is his “default way of being”, and the combination of his vast experience on stage, natural comedic timing, and passion for the  theatre results in a brilliant, must-see performance. For Tate too, the nature of performing on stage allows her expertise in witty characterisation and physical comedy to shine - perhaps even more than it does on-screen. 

When performing for a live audience, the actor must ensure that the patrons at the very back can see and hear the performance as well as those sitting front-row, allowing both David Tennant and Catherine Tate to explore bigger vocal and physical performances, greater layers of comedy and innuendo, and the opportunity for us to witness their electric chemistry in person. Oh, and in this particular production, Shakespeare’s comedy has time-travelled to the party town of 1980s Gibraltar, complete with golf buggies, disco music, and a revolving stage. If you missed this wild and witty performance, fear not: Digital Theatre was there to capture it live - you can watch the iconic duo on-stage in Much Ado About Nothing today.

Zoë Wannamaker in All My Sons

Harry Potter fans will recognise Zoë Wannamaker as Hogwarts flying instructor Madam Hooch, whilst Doctor Who viewers will remember her as Lady Cassandra. Recently, she played British intelligence official Helen Jacobson in the smash-hit series Killing Eve, and appears in Netflix's Shadow and Bone. But fans of Wannamaker’s screen work may not know of her equally varied and celebrated career in theatre. She is a nine-time Olivier Award and four-time Tony Award nominee; a true theatre icon.

Zoë Wannamaker particularly won over audiences in All My Sons, which was met with wide critical acclaim. She played opposite fellow stage-and-screen legend David Suchet, and her performance was described as “astonishing” by The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who gave the show five-stars. 

Whilst screen acting involves plenty of ‘takes’ to get scenes just right, the theatre actor has only one shot at each line every night, and every live moment counts. Audiences can expect to see a masterclass in acting from Wannamaker on-stage - her classical training and long career in theatre make her a world-class stage actor, with a technique and discipline that ensures a full house wherever she’s performing. All My Sons is no different, and was captured live by Digital Theatre during its sold-out run at London’s Apollo Theatre. Make sure you catch Zoë Wannamaker and David Suchet in this hit show on Digital Theatre now.

Richard Armitage in The Crucible

You may recognise our next star of the screen from the hugely popular The Hobbit trilogy, where Richard Armitage stars as Thorin Oakenshield, or from the star-studded cast of Ocean’s 8. On TV, Armitage’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde in Hannibal earned him several award nominations and two wins. TV fans will also remember him from the iconic BBC spy drama Spooks, and more recently as the lead in Netflix’s The StrangerThe Hobbit movies may be his biggest screen credit to date, but one of Armitage’s earliest theatrical roles was as an elf in a staging of The Hobbit

A later highlight in Richard Armitage’s stage career was as John Proctor in The Cruciblewhich enjoyed a sold-out run at the Old Vic and an unprecedented amount of five-star reviews. Interestingly, despite having begun his career on-stage, The Crucible was his first return to theatre after ‘around 12 years’ of working only in TV and film. Armitage said that he and his agent ‘had been searching for a piece of theatre to do for six or seven years – all the way through Spooks. We just couldn’t find the right director, the right venue, the right thing. … Then along came The Crucible.’ The production was a huge success, and audiences were captivated by the brutal physicality and intensity of the performance. 

Acting for the stage requires a great deal of stamina - performing eight shows a week and delivering equal levels of energy to every audience is very different to working on a film set. The Crucible was a particularly demanding show, with highly sensory and physically taxing performances. When asked if he was ‘knackered’ after three and a half hours in such a ‘draining production’, Armitage said, ‘It’s such an enigma. Before the two-show day, I thought: “How am I going to get to the end of this?” And then I’d find myself at the curtain call of the second show thinking: “I don’t know how I got here.” The play just carried you with it. … [the director Yaël Farber] was commended for the transitions between the acts, which in traditional productions would be called scene changes. But she took the time to create imagery and allow the society to function, which was very important.’ 

Armitage was nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance, and due to a worldwide demand for the production, Digital Theatre captured the show live, which screened at cinemas. You can now watch Richard Armitage’s celebrated performance in The Crucible on Digital Theatre. 

The list goes on…

It seems our favourite TV and film actors just can’t keep away from the stage, and the Digital Theatre catalogue is filled with stars of the screen. Those who enjoyed Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You can catch its Emmy-winning actor Paapa Essiedu as the first black Hamlet at the RSC; Killing Eve fans can watch Harriet Walter (who plays Dasha, mentor to Villanelle, and also stars in The Crown, Ted Lasso, and Succession) lead the five-star ‘Shakespeare Trilogy’, where Julius CaesarHenry IVand The Tempest are set in a women’s prison; and you can also catch stars such as Maxine Peake as Hamlet, Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in Private Lives, and the iconic Joan Collins and Steven Berkoff in Decadence - all available on Digital Theatre. 

As much as the UK’s TV and film industries are having a White Heat boom to challenge Hollywood over the last few years, there’s nothing quite like watching these iconic performers come alive on-stage. So what are you waiting for? Grab your popcorn!


Literary Adaptations

As Digital Theatre has recently published three new titles based on great 19th century novels, Helen Hawkins looks at theatre’s love of the oven-ready story……

Where does the theatre go for new ideas? Often, to old ones. The stream of stage shows based on familiar stories goes on unchecked -- as the theatre schedules show, the literary adaptation is still a big hit, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to Life of Pi -- but it’s not just a modern ploy, it’s an approach that’s at least as old as Shakespeare. 

Cynics might say it’s an easy option, like the entertainment industry’s current obsession with retooling hit novels into feature films and box sets. But a good literary adaptation clearly demands much more than a simple transfer of plot points and characters from page to stage. 


Shakespeare is a useful entry point for understanding how finding a decent plot is just the beginning of the transformation process. He would rummage through the texts he had studied, some of them at school, for material: Holinshed’s Chronicles for Macbeth and King Lear, a history of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus for Hamlet, Plutarch for Julius Caesar, a contemporary Italian writer’s version of the Romeo and Juliet story. (Plagiarism was standard procedure in the 16th century.) Like today’s theatre producers, he knew a rattling good plot when he saw one and had the poetic gifts to repackage it into something memorable. What he particularly excelled at were the theatrical techniques that can bring a story on the page to new life, capitalising on the immediacy of theatre and the power of its sound-world. 

Consider the simple idea of making characters speak their private thoughts directly to the audience: we take it for granted as a dramatic tool nowadays, especially since television has popularised it -- think House of Cards and Fleabag. But the soliloquy was executed to perfection by Shakespeare, and it gave his characters an added psychological dimension. 

He also braved the challenging special effect -- the chilling offstage voice of the Ghost in the first act of Hamlet, the character in The Winter’s Tale who famously exits “pursued by a bear”. I suspect he would have happily deployed the sophisticated technology modern adaptors can call on -- the computerised lighting rigs and sound desks that help immerse the audience in the atmosphere of the stage action. Not to mention shows with holograms and tigers in boats. 



Between Shakespeare’s age and ours, though, the notion that writers should strive for original stories emerged. His source material usually read like a history book; as the 19th century progressed, what we know as the novel became the aspiring writer’s top means of expression. Whole worlds were conjured up in their many pages by writers such as Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot, Thackeray and Trollope. 

But how to put a whole fictional world onstage? How to cope with the vast casts of characters? Will there be an onstage narrator, explaining the story, often unreliably, as there often are in these novels? How to convey all the detail in the author’s prose -- about the characters, the back story, the settings, the author’s world view -- especially if you have only two hours and a production budget that isn’t going to stretch to loads of scene and wig changes? 


One way to tackle this challenge, which the RSC took in 1983, is to go brazenly epic. The company staged a version of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby that had an eight-hour running time. It was a game-changing triumph: it transferred from Stratford to London’s West End, was filmed for television (you can still buy the DVD box set, which I heartily recommend) and generally showed adaptors how to be bold and inventive in the face of a doorstop of a novel. The cast played multiple parts, and the staging was simple but infinitely flexible. In 1996, the Shared Experience company went one better. Having already performed Anna Karenina in 1992, four years later they took on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, no less, at the National Theatre, using a troupe of just 15 actors to play 72 roles, enacting major battles with just lots of smoke and a big flag. 

What these productions confirmed was that the literary adaptation at its best is a particular form of theatre in its own right, not just a crowd-pleasing rehash of a familiar yarn. 

You can see echoes of them in the three literary adaptations available to Digital Theatre subscribers this month: Dickens’ Great Expectations, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Shorter in running time, they have the same inventive approach, a love of the original text, and the same desire to draw you right into the heart of their stories, in a way only theatre can do.



You can now watch the adaptations of these three literary masterpieces on Digital Theatre. Subscribe now for a 7-day free trial, after which you can choose a monthly or annual subscription.

Watch Jane Eyre

Watch The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Watch Great Expectations