Disclaimer. Given the subject matter addressed in Prima Facie ( The NT Live pro shot of which will be discussed here this piece contains a very brief mention of sexual assault.) Individual discretion is advised.
The post-COVID theatrical exclusive landscape is very bleak. Yes, there are still blockbusters coming along and cleaning up at the box office every so often. Where the multiplexes appear to be struggling( from this attendee’s perspective) is in the little details. Independent venues and chains more lenient with theatrical windows have plenty to choose from. Ultimately film festival-type audiences will always have something of an appetite to hunt down niche indie or foreign language titles with limited appeal beyond a certain hive mind. Mid-range multiplex titles can now run for months with little competition still playing theatrically long after they’ve bypassed the now 30-day theatrical window. This viewer loved Top Gun: Maverick. Second the best film of the year and a genuinely jaw-dropping IMAX experience. Yet to still see it chugging away at both this viewer’s local multiplexes three months after release with little in the way of competition and a full screen to itself is somewhat disconcerting. Thus any post-COVID box office success story not tied to an enormous blockbuster is likely to get increased coverage. This brings us to the second element within this story this writer wants to discuss today.
The concept of what the modern released lexicon might think of at event cinema has existed in some form since the late 2000s. Beyond cult film events and special screenings, a lot of What one might think of as event cinema refers to live streamed or prerecorded theatrical screenings of theatre or opera pro shorts. Most of which have some form of limited engagement. One of the main proprietors of this type of screening is NT Live. These bring National Theatre productions to a wider global audience through the medium of the big screen. Having been lucky enough to see a few National Theatre productions live on tour and one of my all-time favourites in its original West End run but the opportunity to see these shows have mostly come through these NT Live Pro-Shot theatrical presentations.
NT Live always seems to bring with it a solid level of niche success for those involved in making these pro shots happen. That said hot off the heels of success immortalising the one women West End revival of Fleabag in its original form it would have another massive one-woman success in the post-pandemic UK box office headlines. Prima Facie is the one-woman play starring Jodie Comer. She plays a barrister determined to get the win in her favour until the day she becomes a victim of a sexual assault has created all manner of hyperbolic headlines regarding its box office success since the pro short theatrical presentation began rolling out worldwide on 21st July 2022. Highest grossing UK event cinema release since the pre-pandemic as immediately reported by several UK outlets covering both cinema and theatre. From the second the first box office receipts started rolling in many will look at the success of a piece like this as a huge win more broadly for UK cinema.
Having seen the NT Live of Prima Facie the weekend after it initially debuted this author had two recurring thoughts on it. It’s great to see the star power of someone like Comer bringing a level of accessibility to what is a very challenging text. She is certainly on a path towards being adjacent to the increasingly diminishing Hollywood A-List. Anyone who can survive the genuinely atrocious ending of the show that initially broke you out despite said conclusions active contempt for the fandom it cultivated. Even if this writer would argue Killing Eve (in the one season worth the investment) was never quite as great as some may tell you. Comer has a long career ahead of her both in critic and fandom circles. Comer’s performance in her first major piece of theatre is genuinely extraordinary. The sort of knockout that will make every viewer take notice when watching one of our next great actresses at the height of her powers. If anything the text might be a little bit too conceptually ambitious for its own good. It effectively requires a performance of Comer’s unbelievable raw quality to unlock its full potential. It’s the sort of piece where one can imagine several well-intentioned but not particularly prepared drama societies or performers having a go at in the future before falling squarely flat on their faces. Given the subject matter, the pro shot won’t be for everyone However it’s worth seeing on the merits of a truly jaw-dropping central turn alone. It’s the perfect barnstorm combining a well-liked actress with strong critical and fandom acclaim and giving her a text designed for from both sides of the critical/ audience divide. The success of a piece like this in worldwide cinemas is a good story but should not be that surprising. Audiences will very much still show up if the concoction of elements it’s primed for a certain level of success even with typically niece genres such as theatrical exhibitions of pro shots. Successful projects like this may pave the way for more alternative content to get a wider theatrical platform. Not just theatre and opera as is typical. This critic would love to TV series play specific episodes with limited theatrical runs. It’s one thing sitting on your couch gorging out on the latest huge budget streaming offerings. it’s another being immersed in the world of whatever is being told theatrically with little opportunity for distraction. Especially in an age where TV has so thoroughly eclipsed film as the avenue for truly groundbreaking and immersive storytelling.
That said there was another reason this critic wanted to specifically talk about the successive this particular NT Live presentation and in many ways why he chose to go along and see it theatrically.No beating around the bush here. Beyond Comer being one of the best actresses working today the other reason this viewer specifically sought out the theatrical exhibition for Prima Facie is that for years NT Live’s can be relatively difficult to get hold of legally after their first run. Things are a little bit better now thanks to the National Theatre’s pandemic-induced NT At Home programme and the launch of a dedicated streaming service Things are still not as ideal as they could be. These pro shots go into the archive and only appear to be publicly available when the National Theatre says they can be. Even with the implementation of a specific streaming platform, the library rotates with windows to see certain productions rotating regularly. This seems a bit functionally irrelevant in the age of streaming. on one level it’s nothing more than an extension of attempting to make the “Disney Vault” physical media marketing mechanic work for a new age. The best way for this author to illustrate this is using his two favourite National Theatre productions both of which he has had the chance to see live. Both also have NT live Incarnations. The first is the theatrical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. The puppetry used to bring the story to life on stage blows the distinctly mid-tier Spielberg film out of the water. Having seen and instantly fell in love with the original London run in 2010 and seeing the NT Live when it premiered in 2014 the chance to own a physical or digital copy of a production that is in this viewer’s top five shows. Having not had the chance to see a revival or touring production ranks very high on my list of media this fan would be all over if it were ever to see a fully and readily available;e physical or digital release. To the best of this fan’s knowledge, it has never happened. it has popped up for limited windows on streaming a few times but chances to own and appreciate the astounding work of the show a rare. The closest available may well be they presumably out of print making of DVD produced to promote the original production. As of this writing War Horse typically gets more of now playing than the other example this author brings to the table. This is the NT adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Having seen the 2017 UK tour production this writer was immediately impressed with it. The way it simulates putting the audience inside an autistic mind through the use of incredibly effective lighting and sound design is unbelievably impressive. A true extrasensory experience A pro-shot of it has been preserved having been recorded during the original West End run in 2014. To the best of this author’s research, the full recording is not legally and publicly available as of this writing. Granted a great deal of what makes the production so effective may well be to do with the live experience Without effectively judging the transition to a recorded format it’s impossible to tell definitively. No doubt the National Theatre will put some marketing behind Prima Facies’ debut on its streaming service. The question of how long it will stay there remains to be seen. The preservation opportunities it will have become particularly president when streaming windows are deliberately limited in the first place. This is why even if one has a mild interest in seeing one of the past or future NT Live offerings the easiest way may prove to be theatrically (even with increased event cinema prices.)
The success of something like Prima Facie is good news for the cinema and theatrical sector as a whole. It shows there is still a market out there for non-blockbuster and alternative fare that goes beyond a typical slice of counter-programming. Or the independent arts scene that may wash with critics but have limited commercial appeal. if anything this should be an opportunity for cinemas to branch out and increase the scope of what might be considered alternative content that may or may not be available in the confines of cinema. That said the fact the theatrical first run is still arguably the easiest way to see an Nt Live offering given how the National Theatre treats its archive and streaming offerings (in this writer’s limited experience) is certainly a factor. Who knows if this will change in future? For the time being whilst the success of something as challenging as Prima Facie should be celebrated it is not the saviour of alternative cinema content as framed by some more hyperbolic media coverage.