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NT Live featured in LA Times critic notebook


June 2, 2010

Critic’s notebook: National Theatre’s NT Live season screens big

The London company’s initiative to broadcast plays to cinemas worldwide seems to be a smashing success to a small group of fans in L.A.

By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Late spring, give or take a couple of weeks, traditionally marks the end of the theater season. And while taking stock of the last year, I’d like to make note of a group of plays I caught in Hollywood — Helen Mirren in “Phèdre,” Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in the world premiere production of Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” and, on Monday night in the program’s ecstatic capper, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw in a revival of Dion Boucicault’s ” London Assurance.”

Haven’t heard about these offerings? Well, they were all at Mann Chinese 6. Yes, that Mann Chinese 6 — where “Iron Man 2” and “Shrek Forever After” are the big draw and the escalator ride from the parking structure to the mall seems designed to test one’s junk food restraint. (Exercise some willpower, however, and each theatrical outing will set you back only about $20, plus parking.)

Although NT Live’s recently concluded inaugural season hasn’t made much of a blip on the cultural radar screen, I’d have to call this initiative of London’s National Theatre to broadcast performances of plays to cinemas across the globe a smashing success. I missed the showings of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” and Terry Pratchett’s “Nation,” but the Bennett and Boucicault were thoroughly enjoyable — and best of all, they spared me a costly transatlantic pilgrimage, something I had been impractically considering ever since reading about these mouth-watering openings.

Whenever I attend an NT Live event, I have the sensation of being part of a secret society. Curious about my fellow audience members, I asked a few how they heard about “London Assurance.” One small circle of friends was organized by an Englishwoman who keeps up with National Theatre doings. Another group said it had entered the NT Live loop through the Met: Live in HD circuit.

Most of the people I canvassed mentioned e-mail alerts (which you can sign up for on the National Theatre’s NT Live home page: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive. And no one seemed too keen for the word to get out, an attitude akin to foodies who have discovered a little place they’d rather not see invaded by the Zagat tribes.

Theater on film is usually a neutered experience. The “liveness” of the stage — the palpable connection between actors and audience — is integral to its power. Technology, however, has improved matters, as the Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition satellite broadcasts have shown over the last few years. And NT Live has been exploiting these advances to approximate as closely as possible the theatergoing experience.

The grounds of the National Theatre complex are surveyed to give you a feel of the place (yes, branding is central to the mission). Cameras capture the rustling anticipation of the audience, and a brief interview with artistic director Nicholas Hytner helps set the work into context. During a 20-minute intermission, images from inside and outside the London theater stream across the screen. And at the end, different views of the curtain call allow you to vicariously enjoy the rush of adulation enveloping the cast.

The linchpin of NT Live’s effectiveness, however, is the fleet camerawork that usefully changes perspective. The productions never seem flat or static. (Depth perception is strategically employed.) Sets circulate, and as they roll in, the theatrical simultaneity of fiction and fiction-making is magically preserved.

The sophistication of the presentation — offered in a delayed exhibition in Los Angeles, which is too many time zones away to make “live” desirable — has resulted in one big surprise. I expected contemporary realism to dominate, but the works have been highly theatrical in ways that aren’t what you’d encounter even in the more adventurous reaches of PBS or premium cable.



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