The National Theatre, based on London’s Southbank, is my favourite theatre. I first went to the National Theatre when I was a University student and I have been a regular theatregoer there for over 20 years. I wanted to write about National Theatre Live (“NT Live”) because it is a way that many people, across the UK and around the world, can experience National Theatre productions for themselves.
In June 2009, the National Theatre began a bold new experiment – NT Live – to broadcast live theatre performances direct from the stage to cinemas across the UK and worldwide. The thinking behind this was to enable those who would not normally have access to the National Theatre in London to experience National Theatre productions. It would make the National Theatre truly national and even international.
At the time this was an “experiment” as people, including many involved with the NT Live project, did not know whether the experience of live theatre could be captured on film, whether the concept would take off, and if there would be a market for this new product.
So what is NT Live like and how does it compare to experiencing a production at the National Theatre? At first, I did not use to go to NT Live shows as my preference was to see a production live at the theatre. However, once I had been to an NT Live and experienced it for myself, I regularly see productions live at the theatre and via NT Live. They are different experiences, both special and unique in their own right.
The National Theatre invested a lot of money in making the NT Live experience of the highest possible quality and so, on that day and for that performance, everything revolves around NT Live and its cameras – the cinema broadcast is the priority. NT Live uses a host of cameras and utilizes the full range of camera angles/shots. The close-ups that you get of the actors’ faces are not something you would see in the theatre and nor are some of the camera angles/shots that NT Live regularly utilizes. The cameras are always in the best possible positions so it is like having the best seat in the House at all times (the downside is the camera chooses where to “look” – in the theatre, you can choose where to direct your attention). Actors tend to give of their very best on the day of the NT Live because they know that this is the version that will be kept in the Archive for posterity and that this is the performance of the production that will be seen by the greatest number of people.
NT Live always comes with a package of “extras”, which provide you with background and contextual information to the production. This could include interviews with a range of experts; interviews with the Director, Playwright, and the actors; and behind the scenes rehearsal footage; all of which should enhance your understanding and appreciation of the production. Again, this is not something you would get at the theatre.
There is a special magic in knowing that the performance that you are watching is being beamed live direct from the theatre into cinemas across the UK and around the world, and that you are sharing this particular theatre experience simultaneously with tens of thousands of people around the world. The National Theatre has consistently refused to put any NT Live productions onto DVD because it believes that there is something special about a shared experience (and it wants to maintain the high quality of the product which was designed for broadcast in HD to cinemas).
Finally, NT Live has opened the doors of the National Theatre to a whole new audience. The National Theatre has a very loyal and dedicated group of long-standing supporters. Cheap tickets sell out a long time in advance and, in recent years, popular shows have sold out the whole run far in advance. NT Live allows those who have missed out on theatre tickets to experience the production for a price only slightly higher than a normal cinema ticket. Many people also find theatre as a whole, and theatre buildings, intimidating, or do not feel comfortable in a theatre environment. They prefer to see the production at the cinema in an environment that is more comfortable for them and that is easier to access. Any initiative empowering new audiences to access and enjoy high quality cutting-edge theatre works for me!
NT Live has been going from strength to strength since its inception, expanding to more cinemas, and getting bigger and bigger audiences. The first NT Live screened in around 200 cinemas. NT Live productions are now broadcast in over 700 venues in 22 countries. The first NT Live had an audience of around 50,000. When The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as the Queen, had its NT Live on 13 June 2013, the play recorded the highest audience yet for an NT Live production, with over 100,000 people watching the production live around the world.
The next NT Live is Othello, starring Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, in a production directed by the National Theatre’s Director, Nick Hytner. I have seen this production of Othello at the National Theatre and I would highly recommend it because it places the play in a modern military setting, making it much more immediate, raw and relevant; it has towering performances from both Lester as Othello and Kinnear as Iago; and because it is very accessible to anyone unfamiliar with Shakespeare and/or Othello. Othello is a play examining the green-eyed monster of jealousy and focusing on revenge. This production shows that Shakespeare and his plays are as relevant today as when they were originally written, because they speak about human beings, what drives them, and the human condition. Othello has its NT Live on Thursday 26 September and you can get a flavour of the production by watching the trailer:
The National Theatre is 50 this year. To celebrate, NT Live is presenting a selection of encore screenings of some of its most acclaimed recent productions, including Hamlet (starring Rory Kinnear as Hamlet), Frankenstein (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature) and The Habit of Art, in October and November 2013. I have seen both Hamlet and Frankenstein live at the theatre and I would recommend both as high quality National Theatre productions well worth experiencing. You can find out all about the NT Live encore screenings in the trailer:
Finally something to whet your appetite for next year. In 2014, NT Live will be presenting one of the National Theatre’s most successful productions – War Horse. I have seen War Horse a few times and it is a production I recommend to everyone visiting London who asks me for a theatre recommendation. If you haven’t yet had a chance to experience it at the theatre, you can catch it next year as part of NT Live.
The NT Live website has all the details about future screenings and productions and a full list of NT Live venues.