July 7, 2010

NT Live: It's the Real Thing

One of the big surprises of the last theater season has been the emergence of NT Live as an option for theater lovers who don’t live in cities where top-shelf theater is readily available.  It’s been great for the rest of us too. I’ve now seen three of these simulcasts that beam live performances of plays at London’s National Theatre into movie theaters and other venues around the world. I think they’re swell.  And, apparently, I’m not alone. 

According to the BBC, a recent report by Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts found that audiences “watching a live screening of a National Theatre play were more ‘emotionally engaged’ than those watching it in the theatre.” But what really pleases the theater populist in me is that, according to the report, the relatively low-cost screenings (tickets were $25 bucks here in New York, which is just slightly more than it cost to see the IMAX version of  the blockbuster movie “Avatar”) seem to be drawing people who don’t usually go to the theater. 

The Endowment’s survey found that only 41% of the British viewers who saw Phèdre, the inaugural NT Live offering with Helen Mirren in the title role (click here to read my review), had been to the National Theatre in the previous 12 months. That may have been because they couldn’t afford the pricier tickets. One quarter of the cinema audiences had incomes of less than £20,000, or around $30,000, a year. (Click here to read the BBC report on the study.)

The audience didn’t look quite that diverse when my buddy Bill and I saw the NT Live production of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy London Assurance at the NYU Skirball Center last week.  We spotted lots of familiar theatergoing faces including my sister blogger Sarah B of Endless Adventures in the Pursuit of Entertainment and the actress Estelle Parsons. But I think we still got as big a kick out of the show as the folks in the survey.  Or at least Bill and I did. 

London Assurance is a frothy satire about the mores of the British gentry and it’s filled with deliciously eccentric characters including the foppish Sir Harcourt Courtly, the ebullient outdoorswoman Lady Gay Spanker, and the levelheaded young heiress Grace Harkaway, who is wooed by both Sir Harcourt and his son Charles. There are comic disguises, comic duels, and all kinds of other comic merriment.  Hilarity ensues.

The trick with this kind of comedy is to dance right up to the top of ridiculousness and then frolic on the edge without tipping over. This production, a great hit in London and with the New York Post’s Michael Riedel (click here to read his rave), was brilliantly choreographed by the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner and a crackerjack cast, lead by Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt and Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay who perform near-perfect pirouettes, pliés and grand jetés.

Of course one of the things I most love about theater is its ephemeral, you-have-to-be-there quality.  But sometimes you just can’t be there.  Which is why I’m so taken with these NT Live performances.  The great thing about them is that they aren’t movies—you see the actual performance that London theatergoers see.  But they aren’t the static filmed stage productions that bore you to death either.  

They are a splendid hybrid and as the series has progressed, the folks behind the cameras have gotten better at knowing when to zoom in for close-ups and pull back for reactions shots (click here to read a TDF story about how they do it).  Of course, you don’t see everything that's happening on stage and you can’t linger on an actor who has caught your eye but you do get the frisson of the live performance.

The U.S. season is over but you can still catch London Assurance if you happen to be in Malta (on July 8th) Australia (on the 24th or 25th) Mexico (on the 29th) or in post-World Cup South Africa (on the 23rd, 24th, 25th & 28th).  Or you can just keep an eye out for the new NT Live season, which will begin on Oct. 14 with the Complicite Theatre Company’s production of A Disappearing Number about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.  The season continues with a Hytner-directed production of Hamlet starring the up-and-coming actor Rory Kinnear, a new version of Frankenstein directed by "Slumdog Millionaire's" Danny Boyle, Fela! and The Cherry Orchard with Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Ranevskaya.

So I’ll see you at the movie theater.  I’ll be the one with the Bon Bons.

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