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July 20, 2009 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Want to see some fine drama, but can't afford the cost of flying to London? Well, lucky for you, the Royal National Theatre in London has started a new program: NT Live. How it works: they record live performances in HD, then broadcast them via satellite to art house cinemas around the world (UK Venues, International Venues). The first show in the series is Jean Racine's Phedre, starring the great Helen Mirren.

Some reviews (generally positive) of the show and Mirren's performance:

BBC News
The Guardian 1 and 2
Times Online
Daily Mail
The Independent
The London Evening Standard

But don't worry if you missed Phedre. Coming this October is Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well.
Guardian Review
Times Online Review
London Evening Standard Review
posted by Saxon Kane (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I would comment more coherently, I hope, but I'm spazzing like 10 year old with Jonas Brothers first row tickets. This looks brilliant. I've been attending the Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts the last year or two and they've been fantastic, too.
posted by jokeefe at 9:20 PM on July 20, 2009

I wonder if Helen Mirren ever gets tired of being awesome.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 9:20 PM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not sure I really like this idea. Looking at a screen, you don't really have the intimate connection to the actors that you do on stage; and the actors can't respond to the audience.

If you're willing to lose those things in a performance, why not take advantage of the things a movie allows you, like multiple takes, instant set changes, close-ups?

Also not sure what this would do to local and regional theatre if it really took off.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:08 AM on July 21, 2009

Great invention. They should give it a cool name like "distant-watching" or "television" or something.
posted by w0mbat at 2:08 AM on July 21, 2009

I'm with TheophileEscargot on this. I don't think anyone winds up being well served by this. The cinema-house audience gets to walk away thinking they "saw" this production, but their experience of it may be markedly different than that of the actual audience it was directed toward. The producers get to feel like they've provided some important cultural service, but all they've done is promote a misunderstanding of what theatre is and how it works. In this age, how are you going to convince people to buy tickets for the actual performance when you've already given them the consoling idea that they can catch it later at the moviehouse or on television, or maybe even download it to their iphone?
posted by hermitosis at 6:19 AM on July 21, 2009

Are they going to do a broadcast of that production of HAMLET starring David Tennant?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:59 AM on July 21, 2009

As for Hermitosis and TheophileEscargot's concerns: you make good points about how the experience would be different for that one specific production. However, I'm not so sure that the popularity of theater as a whole would suffer as a result -- that is, any more than it already started suffering with the onset of film and television in the first place. The kinds of people who would be interested in this sort of production, I think, are the kind of people who regularly seek out theater for the sake of theater anyway, and I'm not convinced that they wouldn't continue to do so just because they had the opportunity to see one or two specific productions in a movie theater.

If you think about it, there have been filmed versions of Shakespeare before -- all the Shakespeare Kenneth Branagh's done, Olivier's HAMLET, Mel Gibson's HAMLET, Ethan Hawke's HAMLET, etc. -- but local and regional theaters still continued to muddle on nevertheless, and audiences happily went to see both.

Largely because the theater audience is used to seeing the same show again and again, revived via different ways. I haven't shunned all further productions of HAMLET just because I already saw one when I was 16. (Good thing, too, because Richard "John Boy Walton" Thomas was in the title role and it was a really WEIRD production.) I've seen four different productions of ROMEO AND JULIET, three of the Scottish play, three productions of EQUUS, two versions of SOUND OF MUSIC, three productions of THE FANTASTICKS -- the theater audience that's there will see a show if they want to see it, regardless of whatever else is out there.

The only production I think that a filmed version of, say, David Tennant's turn in HAMLET would compete with in any real sense is the live version OF David Tennant's turn in HAMLET. And Equity won't let you do that, so I'm not sure it's any more of a concern than film in general already competes with theater.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:19 AM on July 21, 2009

I've been to the Met Opera theater simulcasts, and I can tell you, those are electrifying.

We saw Peter Grimes, an uplifting tale about a fisherman and the youth of his village. I don't know exactly how they worked it all out, but they somehow managed to find a way to do a very complete filming of an opera performance without seeming to really interrupt the experience for the audience in the hall. (This involves little camera devices which seem to resemble the Mouse Droids from Star Wars.)

Anyway, the showing itself was really kind of fun. Being a broadcast of a matinee performance, and living across the country from the source, the show started at something like 10:30 am. There were little old ladies wearing their Sunday best, There were couples who were obviously out having a very romantic date (mid-morning on a Saturday). They handed out programs as we walked into the auditorium.

The sound was great. The picture was SO intense. The performances were amazing. It was a pretty excellent way to spent $20 and a few hours on a weekend. I haven't been back since, but watch the schedule every year and plan on getting to another simulcast one of these days.

Was this the same experience as going to the Met itself? Absolutely not. The ambience was completely unlike being in an opera hall, the crowd was definitely there to watch something on a movie screen, not a performance "in the flesh". While there was some applause, most of the attendees in the auditorium with me were cognizant that the performers wouldn't hear them clap and thus didn't bother.

But what magical and electric was the feeling of going out "to the opera", the sense of a group coming together to watch something. Because this was a live simulcast, and not a filmed performance, it would only happen once, it was happening while we watched it, and it was happening all over the world. (The Met simulcasts were beamed to many time zones and latitudes.) It had a real sense of occasion.

These NT broadcasts should be very similar, I would think. They are also live simulcasts of performances (not filmed, although it appears as though many of the US showings will not be shown live). I would only hope that attending one of these events would be as delightful as the Opera Simulcast I attended.

(And I'm certain that few in attendance confuse the simulcast with being in a live theater. I suspect those who are likely to attend one of these showings are not the type to consider watching an iPhone a congruent experience.)
posted by hippybear at 7:25 AM on July 21, 2009

I don't believe that people are going to "misunderstand" the theatrical experience. I saw "Phedre" on Sunday, and it was pretty obvious that what we were watching was neither fish nor flesh; it was a videotaped performance of a play, so not really a movie, not really live drama. I think most people who will go to see this are people who like theater anyway and understand that. I also don't think that this is going to have a negative effect on local/regional theater. If anything, I think it will increase the audience by exposing more people to (some semblance of) the theatrical experience. It certainly won't be any more damaging than the many DVDs releases of plays that are available or the online version of McKellan's King Lear.

What is important about this, like the Met series, is that it democratizes what is a very exclusive experience -- seeing a major dramatic production. It gives many more thousands of people a shared, if slightly limited, experience, hopefully whetting their appetite for more stage-play.

Oh, and they do use multiple cameras and close-ups, which, I think, is a bit of a mixed bag. It is nice to get some of the intimate close-ups and see the actors' performances in detail, and a single static camera would be dull because of the way it flattens out the 3D space of the stage, but in a play like "Phedre" -- in which many of the performances are very grandiose -- the close-ups sometimes become a bit overpowering. The actors are performing to fill up a big space and acting in such a way to reach the back rows. When they are 20 feet tall, it is a bit much.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:17 AM on July 21, 2009

I think this is neat. But then, I like a filmed play.
posted by box at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2009



starring the great incomparable and incandescent Dame Helen Mirren

posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:29 PM on July 21, 2009

Followup: saw a report on the Mexico City showing on the Guardian's theatre blog.
I have to say it was a resounding success.

However, many Mexicans seemed unclear as to what to expect. Judging from a phone call we received the next morning offering us a refund, apparently many were expecting a live, stage performance – not a screening.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:49 AM on July 22, 2009

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