National Theatre goes global with 'Phèdre' broadcast

In his six years as head of the Royal National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner has made a name for himself with his bold moves. He has commissioned large-scale plays and productions dealing with hot-button political issues, he brought in a major sponsor to make large swaths of tickets cheaper than a trip to the movies, and he's championed female and minority directors and playwrights -- even accusing London's critics of being "dead white men." But this past week saw the debut of Hytner's biggest gamble to date: NT Live.

NT Live, which launched Thursday in more than 270 cinemas, is an attempt to bring upscale drama to the multiplex. Sitting in his office overlooking the Thames River, Hytner says the initial idea for NT Live sprang from the National's mandate to deliver live shows to the British public. "To be honest," he admits, "initially we weren't looking at outside Britain." The reason they developed the idea was "because we're the National Theatre, and anything we can do to make ourselves more available outside of London the better."

The initial numbers from Thursday indicate that more than 30,000 people purchased tickets to see the performance live in Britain and more than 16 other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Malta. In the United States, NT Live is presenting "Phèdre" in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Encore and delayed broadcasts continue in theater hubs like New York City, Minneapolis and Chicago -- as well as Telluride, Colo., Charlottesville, Va., and Damariscotta, Maine -- through July 19. The final West Coast "Phèdre" screening will be in Berkeley on July 2.

Hytner says the decision to expand outside of England came about when they spoke with the firm that distributes the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts. "We realized there was a big market for it abroad," he says, "and we always challenge ourselves to be as widely available and widely accessible as we possibly can."

The wide accessibility and exposure is not cheap, however. Hytner would not specify the price tag for the initial broadcast, but he admits that "it's quite costly. At the moment, we require sponsorship, and the only way it's going to be self-sustaining is if we can spread it quite wide across the world."

When asked for his vision of how big this can get, Hytner is both modest and optimistic. "I think it's just for theater audiences. We're not bending over ourselves to bring in the multiplex, popcorn audiences," he says, "but I think those of us who live in big metropolises like London, New York, Los Angeles, we forget how large a sophisticated, literate audience there is outside of the big cities."

Hytner insists NT Live exists for that audience, whether they live in the North of Scotland or Austin, Texas: "I have a close friend who lives in Austin, and I'm pissed off that it's not playing in Austin. There's no reason it shouldn't be in Austin. Presumably, you think, 'There must be 25 people affiliated with the University of Texas who might want to see this stuff.' "

This inaugural season of NT Live will feature four plays. "Phèdre," starring Helen Mirren, is the first, and Hytner attributes much of the box office to her: "Obviously, Helen's presence is an enormous boost and enormous gift." (At Thursday's screening in Los Angeles, demand led to the Mann Chinese adding a second screen.)

Mirren plays the title role in Racine's dramatic tragedy, which retells the Greek myth of Phèdre, the queen of Athens, who falls in love with her royal husband's son from an earlier marriage. "It's a wonderful play," Mirren says in the press notes, "although it is very heightened and in this world of gods and goddesses, it is still psychologically very recognizable."

'So simple, so accessible'

Part of what appealed to Mirren was the grandness of the role. Mirren has said she's read up on Sarah Bernhardt and other 19th century French actresses who played Phèdre. Another appeal is the translation by a former British poet laureate, the late Ted Hughes. Racine wrote Phèdre in rhymed verse, called alexandrines, but Hughes' 1998 translation breaks that formality. Mirren says she finds it "magnificent -- so simple, so accessible, but it has poetic force. It is expressive and visceral, but at the same time it comes out like naturalistic dialogue."

The next broadcast will be Oct. 1 with Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well." After that will be "Nation," an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's young-adult novel (which will show as a Saturday matinee to attract families). "Then finally," Hytner says, a sense of excitement beaming through his casual demeanor, "we're going to do Alan Bennett's new play, 'The Habit of Art.' "

For those who think highbrow theater can't succeed in cinemas, beware of betting against Hytner and Bennett. Hytner candidly admits he's unsure if NT Live will succeed or even continue ("it really is just an experiment"), but don't be fooled by his low expectations. After directing Bennett's "The Madness of King George" and turning it into an Oscar-winning film, Hytner predicted this about Bennett's subsequent play about British high-schoolers: "There would be no film in it and no interest in America." It was titled "The History Boys," and not only did it tour America and win the Tony for best play, but it also became a movie.

To some in the theater world, though, the fear is not that NT Live will fail but that it will succeed and cannibalize the original event. Hytner acknowledges trepidation at the NT about "digital theater." "There is legitimate unease from actors, writers, directors, everybody about the way that the technology is almost like a succubus, it's like the creature from 'Alien.' It invades and suddenly you're changed by it -- and you're occupied by it." But Hytner is not concerned about the technology altering the art form: "If we can use the technology in ways which makes sense to us and enable more people to understand and enjoy theater, then it's great -- it's our friend until we allow ourselves to be occupied."

But could NT Live lead to a day when plays might be programmed because of their "broadcast-ability"? (Think Amy Winehouse and David Beckham in "Romeo & Juliet.") Hytner insists that could never happen. "There is not a commercial imperative behind this," he states. "It's never going to get that big, it can't really -- I think the Met's experience is that broadcasts are not something that bring in vast revenue. In fact, I think the opposite . . . but they're playing a longer game cause they do have a DVD element to what they do, which we're not going to do for the moment."

Both Hytner and Mirren have made enough Hollywood films that they know this "Phèdre" shouldn't be a movie but rather something new. Mirren, in her only interview about NT Live (for Time Out London), put it this way: "The challenge is finding a tool that can speak to the audience out there but not look weird to the audience out here. My instinct is -- because live broadcasts are something the New York Met has done -- to go with the operatic element."

Live, from London . . .

Hytner is adamant that the "Live" in NT Live is the key word: "The live-ness -- or the illusion of live-ness in the U.S. -- is essential." In this way, he says, NT Live is more like sports events, like pay-per-view boxing. "We're going to rehearse and hope that it's shot in a sophisticated, artful fashion, but we're not attempting to make something for the ages. We're not trying to make a movie.

"There's no post-production," he stresses, "there will be no more finessing than there would for a football match on TV."

When reminded of how televising games changed professional sports from small, regional businesses into multibillion-dollar international empires, Hytner confesses that he does have high hopes. "The big plans are to see how far we can expand it in Britain, Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand obviously." But the real prize, he admits, is the giant English-speaking population of India. Right now, there are no screenings in the subcontinent, but Hytner realizes that "if you're looking at the Anglophone world, there's the great rich throbbing center of it."

Other dreams include broadcasting plays from other theaters and perhaps having a dedicated night for it: "If we could on Sunday nights screen stuff from the Stadttheater Berlin or the Comedie-Francaise . . . if we were able to receive as well as give, that would be brilliant."

From his corner office, Hytner certainly enjoys playing an impresario. But over the course of an hour, he more often speaks of the simpler, smaller pleasures of theater that as a director he is uniquely attuned to. "The nature of the theater is that it is effervescent -- it's once and once only," he says. "The perfect thing is for people to come to the theater, but you can't get 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 people at a time to come."

NT Live is Hytner and the National Theatre's way of getting around this. "It brings me back to that basic fact about the theater: You're privileged if you've got a ticket. When Leonard Cohen came to play here in London recently, I didn't get a ticket. I know people who did; I was furious I wasn't there, but he can only play to the people who get tickets. This is a way of trying to include more people in. It won't be perfect, but I hope it will be good."

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