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From stage to screen

London's National Theatre gets in on the HD action

Posted: June 24, 2009

By Steffen Silvis - Staff Writer | Comments (0) | Post comment

From stage to screen

Courtesy Photo

A stepmother stepping over the line. Dominic Cooper and Helen Mirren live.

When the Metropolitan Opera in New York began its experiment with live high-definition broadcasts to a select group of American cinemas in 2006, the house's general manager, Peter Gelb, was probably unable to appreciate that he was starting a technological and artistic revolution.

From scattered bijous and multiplexes in the United States, the MET's HD broadcasts are now beamed to cinemas around the world (including Prague's Kino Aero and Světozor). At the end of the MET's 2008 season, almost 1 million people (at roughly 91 percent capacity) attended. Needless to say, other opera houses have taken notice.

Milan's La Scala, the San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, have now joined the "Live in HD" movement, with the French, naturally, upping the ante with a recent 3-D HD broadcast of Don Giovanni from the Rennes Opera. For opera houses, particularly hard-hit by the economic upheavals, HD broadcasts have come to seem like salvation. But, if this technological feat can do such miracles for opera, could it also come to the aid of live theater?

The National Theatre in London (NT) is betting it can, and is launching its own HD series, NT Live, this week with its current production of Jean Racine's Phaedra, which opened in London two weeks ago. The NT's artistic director and HD gambler, Nicholas Hytner, is leading off with one of his own productions, stacked with stars.

NT Live: Phaedra
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
With Helen Mirren, Dominic Cooper and Margaret Tyzack
June 25 at 7:30
Where: Kino Aero
Tickets: 350 Kč, at the door

Racine's play, inspired by Euripides' play Hippolytus and Seneca's rather more torrid reworking, was a great flop after its premiere in 1677. Indeed, Racine never wrote another play based on a classical theme because of the negative response. But, in the typical fickleness of fashion, Phaedra now stands, along with Bérénice, as one of his most popular works.

As with his classical predecessors, Racine stays close to the Phaedra myth. The wife of the hero Theseus, Phaedra begins to develop an unhealthy, incestuous passion for her husband's son, Hippolytus. Invariably, Phaedra's flaw will be fatal, leading to unspeakable tragedy for all involved.

In the NT's production, Phaedra is played by Helen Mirren, who has been away from the stage for a number of years making films. She will be joined by that great dame of the British theater, Margaret Tyzack, who will play the part of Phaedra's nurse and confidant, Oenone. Current heartthrob Dominic Cooper (of Mamma Mia! fame) plays Hippolytus, Phaedra's handsome and young stepson.

Racine's Alexandrine verse was transformed by former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes into the free-verse adaptation used by Hytner for his production (Hughes' version premiered just before his death, in a production that starred Diana Rigg in the title role).

Still, how will Racine play in, well, Racine? It will be interesting to see. (For the European-wide broadcasts, the play will be shown with subtitles in the native languages). But Hytner is nothing if not committed to the live HD idea, and has already lined up a full season of broadcasts. Next to be seen in Prague will be a new production of Shakespeare's wonderful, understaged All's Well That End's Well, starring Clare Higgins (herself an electric Phaedra in a production at London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre in 2006).

Following into the new year, there will be broadcasts of Mark Ravenhill's stage adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel Nation (and is there another country outside of the United Kingdom more enthusiastic for staging Pratchett than the Czech Republic, where Pratchett has developed a relationship with Prague's Divadlo v Dlouhé?). After Nation, Alan Bennett's eagerly awaited new play, The Habit of Art, which deals with the relationship between poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, will have its cinema debut. The Habit of Art will also come with a crack cast headed by Michael Gambon, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tours.

For any lover of theater, the potential for live HD broadcasts is staggering to consider. Should the NT manage to match the MET's success, imagine sitting in an audience in Brno, Broadstairs or Boise and seeing live performances beamed from the Royal Shakespeare Company (which will be premiering a new translation of Euripides' Hippolytus by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker), the Moscow Art Theatre or even from Racine's old stomping grounds, the Comédie-Francaise. Imagine the NT's production of Phaedra being broadcast in tandem with an opera house's production of Hans Werner Henze's concert-opera version of Phaedra. The possibilities are endless.

It should go without saying that nothing can match the excitement of attending a live performance in an actual theater. However, given the cost of traveling and staying in London these days, NT Live should be the next best thing.

Steffen Silvis can be reached at

Tags: National Theatre, London, HD Live, Met.

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