Smile Politely

An Audience with National Theatre Live

Anyone who enjoys live theatre knows that sitting in an audience, surrounded by fellow theatre lovers, is a rare experience. There is a feeling of belonging that occurs when strangers gather together to hear a story told well, to see actors conveying emotion and passion. The audience acts as a single organism at times, reacting as one body, with one voice, one laugh, one gasp. It is very rare indeed to find oneself in the audience at the theatre and not be in good company. 

On the occasions that I have been lucky enough to patronize the Art Theater Co-op’s presentations of National Theatre Live, I have found myself in very good company. Of course, I already knew this community liked its art-house movies. And I was well aware of Champaign-Urbana’s affinity for live theatre. And, this being a relatively upscale, well-read, classy joint of a town, we have our fair share of Anglophiles. Mix all that together, and you can imagine the delicious combination that comes to pass every so often at the Art.

For the unfamiliar, when I speak of The National Theatre, I mean the National Theatre of London, as in England. The National Theatre first came into being in 1963 at the Old Vic under the guidance of Sir Laurence Olivier. Now, some eight hundred productions later, they have become ingrained in British (and theatrical) culture as one of the most innovative institutions in the world. 

And for the last several seasons, this great entity has embraced global technology and beamed its brilliant work around the world, sharing its creativity with a wider audience than any one theater could previously have hoped to have. As the National Theatre’s website proclaims: “National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world.”

National Theatre Live launched in June 2009 with a broadcast of Phèdre, a production starring Helen Mirren. In the handful of years since, there have been  broadcasts of more than twenty other productions live from the National Theatre stage. These broadcasts have reached nearly two million audience members in 500 cinemas, parks, and other venues. Wherever people can gather to see this quality of work, it seems, they will. And in droves.

“Though each live broadcast is filmed in front of a live audience in the theatre, “ the website explains, “cameras are carefully positioned throughout the auditorium to ensure that cinema audiences get the ‘best seat in the house’ view of each production. Where these cameras are placed is different for each broadcast, to make sure that cinema audiences enjoy the best possible experience every time.” Having been witness to a few of these productions myself, I can attest to the intimacy of the performances, even from across an ocean.

In the last couple of years, the Art has presented several NTLive productions, including Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller), One Man, Two Guvnors (with Tony-winner James Corden), and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (which went on to win several Olivier awards–the highest honor in British theatre). These are only the three I was lucky enough to see. There have been others, and I for one certainly hope there will be many more to come. I’ve seen some of the shows promoted in the National Theatre’s season, and I would certainly like to see such rarified performances as Tom Hiddleston playing Coriolanus, Adrian Lester as Othello, and Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth. Who wouldn’t?

This weekend, the Art will lend its screen to the National Theatre once again to present The Audience, a play by Peter Morgan. In this instance, “audience” refers not to those who have come to see a play, but rather to those who are lucky to receive a private audience with Queen Elizabeth. A pretty exclusive club, to be sure. 

Through the words of the National Theatre:

For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace—a meeting like no other in British public life—it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. The Audience breaks this contract of silence—and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional—sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next PrimeMinister.

The acclaimed actress Helen Mirren–no stranger to playing Her Majesty–plays Queen Elizabeth in this production, under the direction of Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours).

The British press have raved about the production, calling it “Funny and truthful, good-hearted, spiky, full of surprises” (The Times of London) and “Wholly tremendous” (Daily Telegraph). 

Bringing in progamming like this isn’t easy or cheap for the folks at the Art, and it is the reaction and patronage of this community that makes it all worthwhile. It is my fondest hope that as many Champaign-Urbana residents as possible will take advantage of this rare opportunity to have an audience with the Queen…and to become part of an audience with each other. This is something we need in our lives, in our cultural vocabulary, and in our local moviehouse.

The Audience will screen Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. For more information, please visit the Art Theater Co-op website.

Editor’s Note — This just in! In case you were hoping to see Helen Mirren in National Theatre Live’s production of The Audience this weekend but just can’t find the time…? Good news! The Art has added another screening of this tremendous theatre event on Wednesday, September 25 at 2:30 p.m.

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