Ten years of NT Live streaming National Theatre shows into UK cinemas

A Midsummer Night's Dream will be screened by NT Live in a cinema near you this summer. Picture: Perou
A Midsummer Night's Dream will be screened by NT Live in a cinema near you this summer. Picture: Perou
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I want to tell you about two, seemingly entirely unconnected things this week, but two theatrical events that demonstrate the complexity of the make-up of British theatre.

A decade ago Helen Mirren was appearing at the National Theatre in Phedre. A bona fide Oscar winner in a French play inspired by Greek mythology? All the boxes were ticked for a piece of theatre that would be a huge crowd pleaser; except for one thing.

The great beauty and the great problem with theatre is that it is live, exists in a specific space, time, moment. If you’re not there, you didn’t experience it. Helen Mirren in a London theatre playing the role of a lifetime is a great thing to experience – if you can get there. How are those of us outside of London, who, don’t forget, pay for the National Theatre with our taxes, supposed to be able to get to see this once in a lifetime event?

I like to think it was the significance of Mirren on the stage that led the people at the National to not just ponder this question, but to answer it. The answer was a boldly ambitious plan that even now seems utterly far fetched: NT Live.

The National recognised it had a duty to somehow make its productions available to us in the ‘provinces’. The theatre does sterling work in touring productions to the regions, but quite often the touring productions lack the star 
names who are willing to work 
in London, but not spend months of the year on the road, living 
out of a suitcase and bringing shows to audiences outside of the capital.

NT Live was a way to bring the productions to us via a screen. The performances would happen live, on the stages of the National, but they would be filmed and beamed, in real time, to cinemas around the country and the world.

June 25, 2009, was the first time NT Live went, well, live.

Now, for the sake of balance, it should be pointed out that NT Live is not universally loved. Some people in the world of theatre 
have told me they think it is a 
‘cop out’ and that a theatre with the name National in it should commit to touring work, not showing it on screens and the truth is, the screen can never replicate the experience of breathing the same air as actors on the stage.

However. The naysayers really do need to accept that Helen Mirren is unlikely to appear on stage in Ilkley. I’m not saying it’s impossible… but it’s unlikely. The likes of Mirren will, however, be beamed onto the screen in Ilkley’s tiny arthouse cinema, courtesy of NT Live. It strikes me as a decent compromise.

As NT Live turns ten years old, it celebrates the milestone with a series of showings at cinemas across Yorkshire, including screenings of some of the most loved screenings of the past decade.

Flo Buckeridge, senior producer NT Live, says: “The aim when NT Live began ten years ago was – and still is – to give people more access to theatre who otherwise might not be able to see it.

“Our first broadcast was June 25, live to 70 cinemas in the UK that night. The response was so enthusiastic that we decided to broadcast more shows to a global audience. We’ve now broadcast over 80 productions and we currently screen to 700 venues in the UK and 2,500 across 65 countries. We’ve reached a global audience of nearly 9 million people.”

If you also struggle to remember your wifi password at home, getting your head around that feat of technical engineering is quite a job. But the impressiveness doesn’t stop at the technical achievements of NT Live.

“The success is really a reflection of the hard work of everyone involved in a broadcast, starting with the director of 
the show, creative team and cast who make amazing theatre 
and trust the NT Live team to faithfully transfer that to the screen. Everyone works very closely together to ensure 
what people are seeing on the screen is what’s being seen in the theatre.”

This summer new NT Live shows include A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner, a new play 
called Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, starring Andrew Scott.

There will also be, at a cinema near you, screenings of the adaptation of Small Island, The Lehman Trilogy directed by Sam Mendes, and a special, tenth birthday screening of One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Corden.

The second thing, that might seem totally unrelated, is a showcase of three performances at Theatre Royal Wakefield over the coming weeks. The true stories and experiences of refugees and asylum seekers are told in three performances: Three Mothers, The Castaways and This is Who I am. The theatre is currently working towards achieving Theatre of Sanctuary status and to help achieve this has organised a range of projects to specifically support refugees and asylum seekers during Refugee Week 2019 and the performances are part of the project.

What does this have to do with NT Live? The National Theatre’s project is about bringing theatre to people, but it’s about quite a bit more than that. It’s about saying that theatre is for us. All of us.

That the space of a theatre is not something sacrosanct to be worshipped, but a place for us to gather together and tell stories; all of our stories.

For details of NT Live: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Refugee week at Theatre Royal Wakefield

Refugee Week has taken place annually since 1998 and is a nationwide programme or arts and educational events around the UK. The events at Theatre Royal, Wakefield for Refugee Week are:

Three Mothers (June 12), which immerses the audience in the personal lives of its three female characters, The Castaways (June 18), made by York’s White Tree Theatre, tells the story of flooding and displacement, This is Who I Am, (June 20), features first hand accounts of LGBT+ people seeing asylum in the UK.

Details and to book www.theatreroyalwakefield.co.uk