The Best of the British Stage, Coming to a Screen Near You

Helen Mirren's performance was interrupted by drumming outside. (AP)

If you can’t make it to the National Theatre … then it will come to you via cinema. (AP)

At the Gielgud Theatre in London recently, Helen Mirren took her final bow as Queen Elizabeth II in the play The Audience, which was directed by Stephen Daldrey and written by Peter Morgan. Morgan was also the writer of 2006 film The Queen, for which Mirren won an Oscar in the same role, and the play had now finished a sold-out run.

It had also broken a record. On June 13, the performance was seen by 110,000 people. Quite a crush in the stalls you might think, but no, this included 30,000 people in North America and another 80,000 in the U.K., all of whom had come to their local cinema and were watching the performance as part of National Theatre Live.

Unless you’re a millionaire who isn’t affected by jetlag, Brit expats can’t get to the National Theatre very often, so four years ago the NT began a scheme, NT Live, which broadcasts eight plays a season – first live, then recorded – to cinemas across the U.K. It was an immediate success and quickly expanded to 25 countries across the world, including the U.S.

The curtain may be down on The Audience, but U.S. fans won’t miss out because there will be more cinema screenings of the play – around 700 in North America throughout the summer – and then the upcoming fifth season offers Othello starring Adrian Lester and directed by Nicholas Hytner; and Macbeth, starring and co-directed by Kenneth Branagh, from the Manchester international Festival.

Arriving at a cinema in downtown Los Angeles at 11 am (for live performances the 8 hour time difference necessitates an early start) it feels odd passing the popcorn maker, but as you take your seats the satellite feed shows the arriving audience at the theater back in blighty, and you feel part of the night. There is a short featurette about the play, promos for upcoming ones and presenter Emma Freud welcomes you with a few words before the lights go down across the Atlantic.

Multiple cameras and close-ups actually show you more than you might see if you were actually there, and though it’s not quite the same, when else will you get the chance to see the finest actors in the finest plays in the world? Yes, the U.S. certainly has fine theaters and actors – especially in New York – but arguably the U.K. is the gold standard (why else do movie stars go there to take the stage for minimum wage?).

If you’re not a theater fan but still want a bite of some Brit culture, then the British Museum has just started a similar scheme for its hugely successful exhibition “Life & Death – Pompeii and Herculaneum.” It’s first ever broadcast Pompeii Live – a walk through the exhibition about the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which buried two cities in the Bay of Naples in southern Italy – hits UK screens on June 18, and the U.S. (and worldwide) from August 29.

Alternatively, Brit expats or opera newbies could try out the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD: Summer Encores, which features recording of past performances of Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Turandot and others on demand, with the upcoming season coming to a screen near you too.

Register early online for up-to-date information (NT Live tickets sell out very quickly), and this summer you can forget superheroes and sequels; a trip to the movies will now offer, as Monty Python liked to say, “something completely different.”

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.

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