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NT Live and Young Vic Setting Trends for Modern Audiences

Last month, National Theatre Live, the phenomenal program that streams live tapings of some of the hottest British theatre events to international cinemas, presented the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It starred Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Ben Foster as Stanley. The Young Vic certainly provided Tennessee Williams’ American classic with a modern, innovative lens. Small changes to the script and set allowed for a contemporary setting, as opposed to the its original post-Depression timeframe. Seating was in the round, and the minimalist apartment revolved slowly throughout the entire play, giving the action a bit of a revolving, gyre-like momentum. We’ve seen spinning sets on Broadway before, most recently You Can’t Take It With You, Act One, and Bullets Over Broadway but none that incorporated the motion in the entirety of the piece and played such an enormous influence on the overall tone as this. Also lending a youthful voice to the modern adaptation is a contemporary rock soundtrack that plays in between scenes, as characters race around the apartment swigging alcohol and taking baths to show the passage of time.

Ben Foster and Gillian Anderson as Stanley and Blanche

 But more interesting than th film has been incorporating the theatre world. Film and theatre are two very different mediums, and we could spend a whole ‘nother 2000-word post talking about what type of language each one uses and how adding a close-up shot to a theatre performance can change the mood and message of a scene entirely. My case in point is another NT Live screening of Coriolanus, where a close-up of Tom Hiddleston’s face during Tullus Aufidius’s (Hadley Fraser) bromantic Act 4 speech made the cinema audience erupt in laughter. The actual live stage audience had no such reaction.

There are huge strides being made in marrying film and theatre. NT Live is screening its first American show, Of Mice and Men next month. It’s not the first time a Broadway show has been filmed. In fact, every show is filmed and preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The collection is only open to academics and fancy folks. Ever since learning about the collection in high school, I felt that the collection should be open to the public, or that there should be at least regular screenings from the collection (monthly?), even if they charge a few bucks as an NYPL fundraiser. If they’re worried about people opting to wait for the taping instead of paying the $100 Broadway ticket, fine, put a two-year-after-closing-date waiting period on those beauties. But you’re seriously gonna tell me I need a PhD in theatre to be able to see Patti Lupone in Anything Goes? Or Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods? C’mon, NYPL…

Memphis and Jekyll and Hyde were recently filmed for cinema audiences. Live at Lincoln Center brought us a fantastic Sweeney Todd. This New York Times article reports that the reason why more filmed performances aren’t being made is a hold-back on union negotiations. But where there’s a will there’s a way. And if the packed house at BAM’s ENCORE screening of Streetcar had anything to say, it’s that there’s definitely a will.

Another interesting incorporation of film into theatre comes from the team at The Young Vic, which creates short films directly related to their most popular productions. They’re called YV Shorts, and they explore different sides of the play, usually in the vein of a prologue. They’re not exactly for marketing purposes (they seem to have been released after the productions have ended). Instead they are there to provoke discussion, to promote a relationship between film-making and stage performance, and to explore the characters and themes of the works. They’re already had shorts featuring Patrick Stewart and Jude Law, and Streetcar fans can expect to see Gillian Anderson as Blanche at Belle-reve before arriving at Stella’s apartment in “The Departure”.

From “The Departure”

Dear theatre/film-makers,

More of this please and thank you.

Upcoming NT Live Screenings include Of Mice and Men, Skylight, and an Encore screening of Frankenstein.

Five Current British Shows You Should Watch

I know it’s hard to realize that there’s more to British television than Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. That there’s a (not so) vast realm of BBC and ITV and E4 just waiting to be seen. Or even that you can actually watch something else in between Breaking Bad episodes.

Here’s an expanding list of current or recently-aired television series from Kate Middleton’s child’s playground that have done amazingly well for themselves and probably would have been cancelled in America because they’re so good.

1. The Fall

Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan play detective and killer on “The Fall”

My latest television-binge has been The Fall, a five-part psychological crime thriller which has been renewed for season 2 by the BBC. Detective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought in extra special to help the Belfast police track down a serial killer of young, professional women in the city. We the audience, however, already know the killer. It’s father-of-two Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), whose work as a grief counselor and dad seem to leave him more than a little emasculated.

Instead of focusing the plot on the actual casework, like so many other redundant crime dramas out there, The Fall is much more about the psychology of gender and of Paul’s killing. We follow Paul as he continues to kill, and we see how his personal life, his insecurities, and his brilliance are all brought out in the performance of the crime.  Stella, as a detached, self-sufficient, successful, and sometimes provocative woman, is Paul’s foil, and much of the show’s depth lies in the doubling of the two characters. Even in the first two minutes of the show, we see both characters taking off their “masks”– for one it’s her skin cleansing mask, for another it’s his people-killing mask. The show is like a study in gender performance, but it never loses track of its main goal, which is getting into the heads of its amazing characters. Both Dornan and Anderson are chillingly subtle in their performances, which is a nice change from the super charisma or dramatic broodiness of most crime drama leads. It’s available on Netflix Instant.

2. Rev.

Tom Hollander’s a boss.

I first got hooked on Rev. a few years ago when it first premiered and it has slowly gained momentum, especially after surprisingly winning Best Sitcom at the British Academy of Television Awards in 2011. It’s about a Anglican priest named Adam Smallbone who is working out of a small parish in one of the dodgiest neighborhoods in East London. He struggles with the church’s rapidly diminishing influence, money, and population, a conniving archbishop, and the parish’s MANY odd characters. And it’s hilarious. The cast, led by Tom Hollander and HBIC Olivia Colman, bring such warmth, humor, and nuance to the show.

It’s also got INCREDIBLE heart. Adam Smallbone is an infinitely complex and real character.  He’s a flawed, quite tangible, character who struggles with his faith and his moral challenges as much as any of us do. The show never takes religion or faith for granted. It’s something that Adam is constantly working towards and learning through. It makes for some great humor, but also for some great catharsis at the end. Rev. has two seasons up on Hulu, and was renewed for a third to be aired in 2014.

3. Broadchurch

UNF. YES. LET’S DO IT.

This show left me in a daze for about a week. Brilliantly-acted, beautifully-filmed, suspenseful, emotional, dramatic television series make Sara happy. And yup, David Tennant’s still got it. And he’s swiping Arthur Darvill’s mouth with a q-tip. I mean, that alone!!

Now that I’ve calmed down, Broadchurch is about the investigation of the murder of an adolescent boy in a small coastal town where everyone is a suspect. Leading the investigation are Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who has just returned from maternity leave, and Alec Hardy (Tennant), who has taken her place and is a total douchebag about it. Theirs is a relationship that has proven ripe for fanfiction. Each episode focuses (more or less) on the possible culpability of a different towns-person, starting with the boy’s father and ending with –HAHA WOOPS I CAN’T SAY . This structure means things can get a bit predictable. I guessed the killer one or two episodes before the finale, which I’m usually pretty terrible at doing. But never mind that because there’s so much raw intensity, so much emotional intrigue, and so many dramatic shots of David Tennant walking through a beach, it’s well worth your while.  Broadchurch is hoping to attract Doctor Who fans on BBC America, which aired Spies of Warsaw with the same intention, except I was totally not wasting my time on a long-winded movie in which Tennant doesn’t even have sideburns nor ruffable hair. Broadchurch airs on BBCA on August 7. It’s also been renewed for a second season by ITV.

4. Misfits

Misfits Original Cast

Misfits is the longest-running series of the bunch, already having wrapped up its fourth season and renewed for a fifth and final season. It’s been through a lot of changes since it first aired and now has none of its original cast left. To be honest, I haven’t seen much of season four, so I’m not up to date on the show’s current direction.

But seasons 1-3 are definitely some of the most unique, fresh, and smartest series of television you might ever find, particularly when it comes to television comedies. Misfits is about a group of delinquents in community service who get caught in a crazy lightning storm and find out that they’ve got superpowers. As the series continues, they learn that they’re not the only ones with superpowers. Fun plots ensue.

There are several brilliant components to this idea. First of all, what happens when you give superpowers to juvenile delinquents who are facing all the anxieties, pressures, and pleasures of being young adults? This particular group has extremely diverse personalities and goals, ranging from the once-promising athlete Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) to the loud and terribly obnoxious Nathan (Robert Sheehan) who doesn’t seem to envision much of a future for himself at all. Another brilliant component of this idea is that the characters’ superpowers are all reflective of their insecurities and fears. The boy with no friends gets to be invisible. The girl who fears what other people think of her gets to read minds. This is how you get characters to have a personal stake in what’s happening to them.

Misfits at its best is hilarious, unpredictable, and pretty flipping addicting.  You can watch it on Hulu.

5. Luther

Get it, get it.

Of this bunch, Luther has probably made the most successful jump to America. Its star, Idris Elba, has won a Golden Globe for the role and might get his Oscar nod for the upcoming Nelson Mandela biopic. Also, my classmate referred to him once as ‘Chocolate Thunder,’ which I think is as important to mention as the awards stuff.

Luther is another detective show with great actors, great writing, and all that good stuff. But what really stands out to me is how wonderfully complex its plots are. Now, I’m not talking about Steven Moffat-complex. (Now that I wrote that, there should be something called a Steven Moffat complex). Nah, Luther-complex means that the crimes have roots in some tremendous issues, some of them societal, others more personal. Each episode feels rather weighty (in a good way) with all the exploration that can be done. Luther himself is also a great character to follow, particularly when it comes to his marital issues in season 1. Luther’s third season just premiered in the UK and hopefully it will be up on BBCA and/or Netflix Instant where you can find its other two seasons.

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