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Theatre on the big screen

Razia Iqbal | 17:44 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

phedre_blog1.jpgThe purists could be up in arms, but perhaps there won't be too many of them. Taking its cue from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the National Theatre in London will on Thursday embark on an ambitious experiment. It will launch its pilot season of NT Live, broadcasting live performances of plays onto cinema screens in the UK and around the world.

Nearly 300 cinemas around the world (73 in the UK) will see a live performance of Jean Racine's Phedre (in a translation by Ted Hughes), with Helen Mirren in the title role. This performance will be beamed live via satellite from the National theatre, using five cameras.

Phedre is the story of a woman consumed by an uncontrollable passion for her young stepson - and thinking her absent husband, Theseus, to be dead, confesses her darkest desires.

When I asked the director Nick Hytner why he chose this play, he said two words: "Helen Mirren".

If this could work with anyone, it would work with her selling it - and she does, in trailers in cinemas up and down the country, mainstream, selective Odeons and Vue cinemas, as well as more art house venues. And why this play? It is, according to Hytner, a purely theatrical experience, but will not and should not be viewed as a film for those sitting in cinemas.

It is more like the equivalent of watching a live sporting event. Phedre is certainly an intense evening at the theatre, and there isn't much in the way of action; it is emotional and requires a serious attentiveness.

There has always been an issue with filming theatrical productions; directors tend to hate it because it makes the productions look flat. But Hytner is a convert in this instance, for two reasons: he thinks that the National can - and should - reach as wide an audience as possible; and the technology, he believes, gives a clarity and resolution which makes it feel "live" for the cinema-going audience.

Subsequent productions coming to a cinema screen near you will be Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well; Nation, based on a Terry Prachett novel and adapted by Mark Ravenhill, and Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, with Michael Gambon, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour.

The Met's experiment is hugely successful. Opera is beamed live into 800-plus cinemas around the world. But it costs money. Each production the National does this with will cost £120,000 and, although it is sponsored, the National hopes tickets sales will be able to sustain it in the longer term.

The reach of the National Theatre's productions will certainly increase; ticket sales for the first Phedre cinema performance are currently 71%. But will there be a cost in terms of quality of experience? And is that just a precious perspective? Of course, making artistic work as widely accessible as possible, especially when funded by the taxpayer, is a good thing. But is it being done at the expense of the actual experience of the art form? And would it be complacent to accept that theatre will always be for a niche audience?

In some respects this is a good example of how innovative the creative industries can be; using technology to stay relevant and create new audiences, and the proof, as ever will be with the number of bums on seats.


  • Comment number 1.

    Brilliant choice of lead. Phedra (and Medea) are some of the most powerful female roles in drama. The destructive forces unleashed take the breath away.

    To bring this work to a wide audience is quite splendid.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's a fantastic idea. I'm sure lots of people who weren't lucky enough to get a ticket (or couldn't afford one) will go to see it on screen instead. The NT should be congratulated for following ROH in trying to bring culture to as wide an audience as possible.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hytner is right. The technology is there to give a 'live' feel to the production. This allows the audience to *associate* into the actor's performance and feel corresponding emotions.

    Directors don't like the 'live' look because it doesn't look like film with all its optical distortions and its unmerited association as 'big budget'. They prefer to impose motion artifacts on the content; a low picture repetition rate of 24 frames per second, distorted lighting and focus effects and limited depth of field. This creates an opaque barrier between the players and the audience.

    I hope this production demonstrates how the medium can emotionally involve audiences once again.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am delighted that I will be able to see Ms. Mirren and Ms. Tyzack here in New York in a comfortable, small theatre in midtown Manhattan, and look forward to future productions on film. It allows me to sample a small part of the London 'season', and although we have a sterling production of Godot on stage presently, I would dearly love to see McKellen and Stewart, Cowell and Pickup as well. Being in London would be best, but this is a very good second best, and I, for one, am grateful.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have just come from seeing the broadcast in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (why there was no broadcast of this in Boston is beyond me; we are the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for heaven sake). What a true delight. I saw two hours of fine, fine acting, and of course being able to watch Helen Mirren act was such a pleasure (that Phedre, she had ALOT of emotions to, um, emote).

    Some things didn't translate well to the screen--I'm sure the set was stunning in person but it appeared disproportionate and distorted on the screen--but they did not mar the experience or the pleasure of being able to take in such a great production of the National Theater's.

  • Comment number 6.

    Why can't I have them of the "big screen" (it's 70")in my apartment? rather than have to go to the Cinema or even free in Manchester's Open Air Cinema. I am paying for the (English) National Theatre.

  • Comment number 7.

    I managed to see Phedre last night at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. it was sold out.

    I greatly enjoyed the experience (although i found the story to be a little dull). The set and acting were fantastic and the show transferred to camera very well.

    The use of 5 cameras allowed the cinema audiences to see close ups of the actors at key moments.

    however my only disappointment came from the fact that at no point you ever got a sense of there being a live audience there with the actors. It felt much more akin to a television production along the lines of the 1980s Shakespeare productions made by the BBC.


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