Just over a month into quarantine, and the most avid theatre-goers among us are starting to miss even the annoyances of live productions – the rustle of overpriced sweets; having to prod awake the snoring man next to you; realising after you’ve downed a large pinot grigio that this two-and-a-half hour play has no interval.
But what a pleasant surprise it is to discover that when you’ve spent eight consecutive days in tracksuit bottoms, putting on a bit of lipstick and beaming some of the best productions of recent years directly into your living room – perhaps at the same time as your friends in their own living rooms – actually feels rather galvanising.
And given that the price of theatre, combined with the inevitably limited ticket availability, can make it all feel slightly exclusionary, this sudden glut of free theatre feels like even more of a treat. Here are some of the best free plays to stream online – though if you can afford to chuck a donation their way to protect the arts, all the better – plus five you can watch for a pretty small fee.
Romeo and Juliet, RSC
The gender-fluid casting of director Erica Whyman’s 2018 production – in an inversion of the Elizabethan tradition, five of the male roles were played by women – split opinion when the play first ran, but most agreed it was a bold, nimble adaptation of a well-trodden play.
Watch and decide for yourself – and you can also compare it to this equally enjoyable 2009 production at the Globe.
Joining the star-crossed lovers in a veritable feast of RSC productions are: Christopher Eccleston’s take on Macbeth, Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet, and a handful of other Shakespeare plays, all of which will be streaming on iPlayer for four months in celebration of the Bard’s birthday.
Frankenstein, National Theatre
You could watch Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the monstrous Mary Shelley novel two nights in a row if you wanted. First – on 30 April and for a week afterwards – you can see Benedict Cumberbatch take on the young scientist Frankenstein, and Jonny Lee Miller the near-human creature he creates as an ill-advised science experiment. The following night, you can witness the reverse; during the original 2011 run, the two actors switched roles each night. Why not? You’ve probably got the time.
A starry cast including Gemma Arterton, James Norton, Olivia Williams and Rory Kinnear will perform in world premieres of over 10 new short, digital plays – rehearsed and performed in isolation – which will tackle head-on, in one way or another, the coronavirus pandemic. They’ll be broadcast on BBC iPlayer in May as part of its Culture in Quarantine initiative.
Twelfth Night, National Theatre
Tamsin Greig was a scene-stealing delight as Malvolio (here refashioned as Malvolia), while Phoebe Fox was wily and charming as Olivia in this exceptional National Theatre production, which will be streaming on the NT’s YouTube channel until 30 April.
Night of the Living Dead – Remix, Leeds Playhouse
This shot-by-shot remake of George Romero’s 1968 horror classic was an almost laughably ambitious undertaking. Two screens adorned the stage: on one, the original movie played out, and on another, a live version, filmed with three cameras by the seven people onstage. Somehow, directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, and their ensemble cast, pulled it off, and the production was a triumph.
Wise Children, York Theatre Royal
Adapted by Emma Rice from a novel by Angela Carter, this Old Vic production was a surefire showstopper from the moment it was announced. Telling the surreal story of two twins trying to make it as showgirls, the no-holds-barred production got rave reviews, and is available on iPlayer for two months.
Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre
Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo starred as the intoxicated lovers caught between their passionate desire and his sense of duty. It was an instant sell-out back in 2018, so don’t miss this second chance to see it, from 7 May and for a week afterwards.
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
If you need persuading to watch this star-studded, at-home celebration of one of the most inventive and revered musical theatre composers of our time, you need know only this: Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald do a brilliant, boozy rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch”.
North Country, Freedom Studios
Bradford theatre company Freedom Studios, who last year put on the excellent theatrical biography of playwright Andrea Dunbar, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, are releasing a live stream of their 2016 production North Country. Exploring the lives of three young people in Bradford dealing with the aftermath of a devastating plague, it could hardly be more timely.
The Shows Must Go On, various venues
Each week, a different Andrew Lloyd Webber musical goes online for 48 hours, free of charge. From the glitzy rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar, with its oddball cast of Tim Minchin, Chris Moyles and Mel C, to the Royal Albert Hall’s production of Phantom of the Opera, with its enormous chandelier and slightly dodgy gender politics, Lloyd Webber musicals are the perfect madcap distraction.
Five plays you can pay for...
Fleabag, Soho Theatre
Last year, Phoebe Waller-Bridge resurrected the one-woman show that led to her acclaimed BBC series of the same name. A mad scramble for tickets and a fairly short run meant that many missed out on seeing the work of dark comic genius. Thank goodness, then, that it’s now online for a small fee.
Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham Theatre
As the bickering Benedick and Beatrice, David Tennant and Catherine Tate were perfect casting for this Shakespeare comedy back in 2011. Nearly a decade on, now’s your chance to watch it again – or for the first time.
Hamlet, Royal Exchange Theatre
In 2015, Maxine Peake captivated Manchester audiences as the first female Hamlet on a major UK stage in 35 years, deftly channelling the vengeful protagonist’s descent into madness.
Funny Girl, Savoy Theatre
As troubled Broadway star Fanny Brice, Sheridan Smith stepped into a role made famous by Barbra Streisand, and did so with aplomb.
Lovesong, The Lyric Hammersmith
Written by Abi Morgan – known for her TV and cinema work – this potent production mixed storytelling with physical theatre and followed a couple from the first stages of their life together to the very end.