national theatre live

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.

NT Live Presents a Harrowing and Modern ‘Medea’

We first fell in love with the Royal National Theatre about five years ago, when we participated in a month-long study abroad focusing on London theater. The National is such an energetic and progressive space for theater. It present fantastic, on-point productions in a diverse, democratic space, and, since it receives public funds, tickets can be bought for half the price of a regular theater ticket, if not less.

And now, starting in 2009, the National launched NT Live, a program that films some of the National’s most in-demand stage productions and broadcasts them live to cinemas around the world. It’s an innovative program that hopefully will be adopted by other prominent theater companies, not only to further promote and spread excellent theater, but also to preserve it. Theater is a far less accessible medium than film, for reasons of cost, specific location, and specific duration, and any opportunity to enhance the theater’s audience and ensure a production’s longevity should be taken. Since it start, NT Live has increased its accessibility among international audiences, with screenings of noteworthy productions like Frankenstein (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), Coriolanus (a Donmar production starring Tom Hiddleston), and soon-to-be Broadway productions like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Audience, and Skylight.

Helen McCrory and Danny Sapani in Medea

You’d expect no less from a forward-looking company than this powerful production of Euripedes’ Medea. Using a new translation by Ben Powers, Carrie Cracknell directs Helen McCrory in the title role. McCrory is a powerhouse actress with a knack for playing turbulent and/or conflicted women. She adds a quiet and authentic severity to Medea, and is more than capable of tacking the physical and emotional demands of the role. Unlike most tragic heroes, Medea begins already grief-stricken, with a history of conflict and violence long enough to fill its own Greek tragedy. Out of love for Jason, the Greek adventurer and leader of the Argonauts, Medea again and again saved his life using ancient magic and strategy throughout his quest for the Golden Fleece. She killed and dismembered her own brother in order to provide a distraction for Jason’s escape.

Jason (Danny Sapani) is now Medea’s husband and father to her two children. Her new grief is due to the newly announced marriage of Jason and Glauce, King Kreon’s daughter. Jason rationally argues that this new marriage is a political and economic ploy to ensure the the protection of Medea and his sons. But Medea refuses to see the marriage as anything but betrayal. Historically, rationality has been seen as a male trait and superior to female emotion. Here,  Jason’s emotionally distant logic counteracts Medea’s deeply rooted, instinctual fervor.  She envelopes herself in grief and plans her revenge. To make matters worse, Kreon (Martin Turner) banishes Medea, a threat to the happiness of the kingdom. What struck me about Medea’s eventual decision to murder her children is how she must adopt the same oppressive patriarchal logic in order to execute the plan, abandoning her instincts and alienating her actions from her feelings. It is her mind, not her emotions, that brings about this atrocity. This is clear in Helen McCrory’s beautifully executed soliloquies debating the act, revealing the psychological twists and turns of her motives. For me, this is the triumph of the play, this rationalization of the murders that mirrors the rationalization of the male authority figures. This adoption of male logic, as opposed to her abundance of emotion, is the perpetrator of her actions.

This production is set in a modern home, albeit a crumbling one. The dirty, peeling patterned wallpaper and 70s-style tiled floors give the house a look as if it hadn’t been cared for in years, the result of years of neglect, even though Jason’s marriage to Glauce has only been just announced. It gives one the feeling that this oppressive grief, this anger, is a deep-seated one that has always been latently present, but only recently surfaced. Knowing what we do about Medea’s history with Jason and ancient Greek patriarchy, it is clear that Medea’s betrayal is only one face of female sacrifice, of the abuse of male power, and of a (perhaps unconscious) long-lasting resentment between the sexes and neglect of feminine humanity. This latent anger is further emphasized by the way that the set gives way to a lurking forest in the background. Atop the house is a hall walled with glass, the scene of Glauce and Jason’s wedding party. Structurally, the forest may be like the lurking subconscious, the otherworldliness of Medea’s mysticism and powerful emotions (She is traditionally seen as a representative of the old mystic, uncivilized world of witchery and magic, while Jason ushers in a new structured civilized age). It is the unbridled rawness of human nature, the id, if you will. If Medea’s home is the ego, struggling to balance her emotions with her thoughts, then the glass hall above is the superego, the civilized, the home of rationalism, logic, and ideology. It is the realm of the accepted status quo, that which has been deemed correct by the patriarchal hierarchy of Greece.

The chorus of this production is comprised of the women of Corinth, the bridesmaids at Glauce’s wedding. They comment on Medea’s actions, but they too struggle with the emotional and psychological contradictions of patriarchy. Accompanied by a chilling score written by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, the chorus convulsively dances at pivotal points in Medea’s plan, their bodies becoming symbolic incarnations of Medea’s mental state and of the psychological distress that exists in the psyches of oppressed peoples. Sometimes the choreography seemed too much like break-dancing (there were a few giggles in the audience in one scene) but its purpose was clear.

To find local screenings of NT Live’s Medea, as well as upcoming NT Live productions, visit their website here.

LMezz Guide to Watching Theater On Screen

It’s hard to find filmed theatrical performances! Of course, there’s nothing like being part of a live audience. But when a show is either too expensive or too far away or already ended, it’s nice to know that filmed performances last for us to see. Feel free to comment below with other links or tools you use to watch filmed theatrical performances!

Digital Theatre is amazing for watching shows from across the pond. For a small charge you can rent filmed performances from hot West End tickets and there’s a really wide selection to choose from. I watched last year’s acclaimed production of Merrily We Roll Along, and not only was the show excellent, but the platform was super accessible. Lots of theater companies are featured too, like the RSC, the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Young Vic, and more.

RSC’s Live From Stratford-Upon-Avon broadcasts performances to cinemas around the world. So does Globe On Screen Check their online schedule for participating theaters in your area. DVDs are often released of these tapings.

Because why wouldn’t you want to see Tom Hiddleston take a shower on a 50 ft. screen?

Okay, honestly, the West End is on their game and Broadway needs to take note. National Theater Live is yet another British-based resource for watching hot West End performances. I’ve seen a number of these productions (Coriolanus, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Frankenstein, Habit of Art) and they’re all pretty awesome. The price of the ticket a bit more expensive than a normal movie ticket (usually $20-25), but it’s so worth it!

Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd

Unfortunately PBS is the only legal way that we know of to watch American Broadway productions. Watching fully-staged productions is even harder. Unless you get a magic pass to the New York Public Performing Arts Library, or you find magic bootlegs on Youtube, or your show gets a magic DVD release (like Passing Strange or Memphis) it’s kind of impossible.  New York Philharmonic’s March production of Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson will be aired on PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center series later this year. Great Performances is also amazing for catching filmed performances, and it looks like PBS is also amping up its digital game– you can now watch tons of recent performances, like Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Sting’s The Last Ship, David Tennant in Hamlet, and about 25 other full episodes (plus many more scenes and clips). Opera lovers have lots more options, since the Met Opera has an On-Demand service.


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