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National Theatre Live: A Hybrid of Film, Television and Theater


In these days of high cost travel and rapidly shrinking bank accounts, I quietly considered the bundle I had saved by not needing to board the Concorde to attend the hit London production of the Victorian satire LONDON ASSURANCE, the latest offering from the National Theatre's worldwide satellite broadcasts. Sitting in the plush, air-conditioned environment of the Jacob Burns Film Center thirty miles from New York City, I could only marvel at the experience of a delicious "night at the theater" with the added convenience of visiting my local arthouse cinema complex (not to mention the savings to my already dangerously empty wallet). 

National Theatre Live ( is an exciting initiative to broadcast live performances of plays onto cinema screens worldwide. Nicholas Hytner, the celebrated Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London, has been a prime mover behind the project. "I grew up in Manchester in the 1960s, Hytner states on the program's website, "If I had been able to see Olivier’s National Theatre at my local cinema, I would have gone all of the time.’  The high definition broadcasts are screened in over 70 cinema houses in the United Kingdom, as well as to over 15 countries, including the US, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan, for a total of 300 plus venues around the world.

The project not only brings quality London theater to the masses, it also engages viewers in a unique hybrid of film, high definition television and live theater that is not quite a film, but not quite the standard television experience either. The productions are mounted on the physical stage at the National Theatre with a live audience in attendance, but its fluid camera movements suggest an intimacy that only television can provide with the high technical standards of a filmed experience (although the format is high definition television of the highest standard). The result is a breathtakingly intimate and technically superb rendering, one that brings viewers up close and personal to the plot and to the acting prowess of the National's resident company and guest stars.


The program, a mix of classics and new works, has already presented such milestones as PHEDRE by Jean Racine with a stellar cast toplined by Helen Mirren, a new adaptation of the Shakespeare classic ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Mark Ravenhill’s exhilarating adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s adventure story NATION and the recent presentation of Alan Bennett's think piece on 20th century modernism, THE HABIT OF ART.

LONDON ASSURANCE is a classic of the Victorian drama canon. A devastating satire on Dickens-era morality and social structures, the story revolves around Sir Harcourt Courtly, a portly fashion plate, who is lured away from the epicentre of London society by the promise of a rich and beautiful bride, several decades his junior. Arriving at Oak Hall, Gloucestershire, he marvels at this rural Venus until her charms are eclipsed by her hearty cousin, the foxhunting Lady Gay Spanker. Meanwhile his disguised son turns up in flight from his creditors and falls head over heels for the young fiancee. Merriment, as they say, ensues, giving all the players a chance at love.

Dion Boucicault, the Irish genius of London theatre in the age of Dickens, wrote the brilliantly funny play in 1841 and thereby created – in Sir Harcourt and Lady Spanker – two of the great comic roles of the English stage, played in this National Theater production by the sublimely gifted Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw. A hot ticket of the London theater season, the National Theatre's ambitious initiative gives audience members a chance to relish the treasures of live theater without having to leave the country. Consider it a gift.......I do.

For information on the next season of the National Theatre Live program and to locate a participating movie theater near you, log on to:

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor

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Mandelberger Sandy
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The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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