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Forget Netflix, theatre is the new box set binge

As the National Theatre prepares for its all-day opening of Angels in America, Holly Williams looks at the rising trend of box set theatre

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James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior) in Angels in America, which is approximately seven and a half hours long
(c) Helen Maybanks

British theatre has gone epic – as in embracing bum-numbingly long plays, not the theories of Bertolt Brecht. A spate of marathon productions in recent years have turned theatre-going into an endurance event. The surprise, perhaps, is just how much of an appetite there has turned out to be for this.

And there's no high-low dichotomy here. Recent audiences have strapped in for Ivo van Hove's Shakespeare trilogies – Kings of War splicing together Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III and Roman Tragedies an interval-free six hours squishing together Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In Dutch. Sounds like the very definition of a hard sell? Hardly. Look at the starry reviews these productions won, and the fan-club tweeting (helped by being encouraged to get stuck in actually during the latter show, it's true).

But blockbuster family entertainment is going super-size too: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child demands serious time commitments with its two full-length parts – but it seems audiences and critics alike couldn't get enough. The all-conquering show scooped up almost every award going at the recent Olivier and WhatsOnStage Awards.

Perhaps our appetite for theatrical feast days should come as no surprise

Opening this week, Angels in America is such a hot ticket, people are queuing from 5.30pm the evening before to get in. Sure, Andrew Garfield helps, but so does its status as the stuff of theatre legend – and that is surely in part to do with its epic nature. The second play alone strides boldly over the four-hour mark; seeing both in a day promises to be both dazzling and a little dazing.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child clocks in at five hours and fifteen minutes
© Manuel Harlan

Meanwhile, this winter at the RSC Mike Poulton – who has form, turning both doorstopper Wolf Hall novels into a pair of shows - is back at it, adapting Robert Harris' best-selling Cicero trilogy. The books will be turned into six plays, staged over two performances, each with two intervals. Even Alan Ayckbourn's twin comedies House and Garden, which can be watched back to back, are being revived at the Watermill this summer.

Of course, endurance theatre isn't new – several of this year's big-hitters are revivals, and history is littered with productions where the running time made as many headlines as the content. From Peter Brook's The Mahabharata to the full-novel-featuring Gatz to the RSC's Complete Histories cycle, going big is one way to get noticed.

Is it the power of collective experience that leads audiences to big up such bumper-sized shows?

But there does seem to have been an awful lot more bladder-busters in recent years – and not just productions where the length is the most striking thing, but more often shows, or combinations of shows, that seem to gain by being allowed to stretch out or to sit in dialogue with one another. Trevor Nunn's reviving of The Wars of the Roses and the RSC's Henriad cycle make obvious links between Shakespeare plays, but Rona Munro did the same with her own histories in The James Plays.

Kenneth Branagh staged a Shakespeare/Rattigan combo, where three-show days allowed The Winter's Tale to talk to (or, one might argue, utterly eclipse) Harlequinade, Rattigan's backstage comedy about a theatre company auditioning for that same Shakespeare play - as well as throwing in short one-woman play All on Her Own for good measure. Robert Icke added an extra Iphigenia play to the Oresteia, and it still became a West End smash. At Chichester and at the National, the Young Chekhov trilogy proved most popular on three-show days.

But is it the power of collective experience, or a form of Stockholm syndrome, that leads audiences to big up such bumper-sized shows? Once you've invested a certain amount of time in an experience, there is a temptation to declare it brilliant just so you don't feel like a chump. There's an element of bragging rights too, of having ‘survived' something.

Watching Young Chekhov, I realised as I took a seat one sunny morning that the total experience would be eleven-and-a-half-hours long – the same length of time as a flight to Brazil. But there's also a genuine value to settling in for the long haul: you feel the rewards of really immersing yourself in a story, a world, or a writer's work. A three-show day inevitably – and quite magically – recalibrates your approach to time-keeping. The clock-watching it is so easy to fall into during a two-hour show seems to evaporate.

British theatre may simply be playing catch-up with the television-led zeitgeist

And those plays certainly seemed to befit from binge-viewing, allowing you to watch the development of a playwright, to trace themes. At the time, David Hare - who adapted the three plays (Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull) - explained that he was a fan of a three-show day himself: "you cease to think about time, and something wonderful happens. I'm very much a binge man."

Aren't we all, David? Perhaps our appetite for theatrical feast days should come as no surprise after all: we're in an age where the Netflix or box set binge has become a totally normal way to consume culture. Contrary to concerns about shrinking attention spans, we seem to have an increasing hunger for multi-stranded, long-form entertainment. British theatre may simply be playing catch-up with the television-led zeitgeist.

Box set immersion is more of a commitment in a playhouse, granted: there's no pausing live actors to get a cup of tea. But theatre does have the trump card of being a communal, live experience. Somehow, adding a durational dimension to that - the sense of gathering together to really commit to an experience - makes it feel all the richer.

And then there are the actors: while we sit comfortably(-ish) in the dark, they're on stage, giving it their all, over hours or even days. Theatre is a shared contract between actor and audience – and when you've got a bedded in, truly invested audience journeying with a company of gut-busting actors, that exchange often feels all the more potent. Epic wins all round then.