Smile Politely

Our long National nightmare is over

Over the course of an adulthood spent in the theatre, it has been my pleasure and privilege to see some extraordinary performances. I’ve seen professional theatre and community theatre and talent of every stripe therein. And of all the great theatre I’ve seen, three of the finest performances I have ever witnessed took place on the screen at the Art Theater Co-op.

That’s a strange admission, given that the Art isn’t exactly a theatre theater. And yet it’s true.

Over the last couple of years, the Art has presented broadcasts of National Theatre Live, described accurately by the NT Live website as, “a groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world.” These productions, starring some of the UK’s finest actors, have been seen by millions of viewers in more than 1000 locations worldwide.

I have seen The Late Late Show’s James Corden run himself ragged in a breathless production called One Man, Two Guvnors, leaving very little doubt as to his musical comedy bona fides well before anyone thought to put him in the big-screen adaptation of Into the Woods. And when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Tony Award for Best Play this year, I wasn’t a bit surprised. Why? Because I saw the original production right here in Champaign at the Art.

What I’m saying is this: It’s magical. And, following a brief hiatus, the magic will be back among us as the Art gears up to present three upcoming NT Live performances of classic theatre with contemporary masters in the lead roles.

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

First up is George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, starring Ralph Fiennes. Per the Art’s website:

Ralph Fiennes plays Jack Tanner in this exhilarating reinvention of Shaw’s witty, provocative classic. A romantic comedy, an epic fairytale, a fiery philosophical debate, Man and Superman asks fundamental questions about how we live. Ralph Fiennes takes the role of Jack Tanner in this exhilarating reinvention of Shaw’s witty, provocative classic.

Jack Tanner, celebrated radical thinker and rich bachelor, seems an unlikely choice as guardian to the alluring heiress, Ann. But she takes it in her assured stride and, despite the love of a poet, she decides to marry and tame this dazzling revolutionary.

Tanner, appalled by the whiff of domesticity, is tipped off by his chauffeur and flees to Spain, where he is captured by bandits and meets The Devil. An extraordinary dream-debate, heaven versus hell, ensues. Following in hot pursuit, Ann is there when Tanner awakes, as fierce in her certainty as he is in his.

Man and Superman will show Sunday, June 21st, at 2:30 p.m., and Wednesday, June 24th, at 1 p.m.

Everyman, a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy

Everyman, from the 15th century, is an allegorical morality tale with no attributed author. As a morality tale, naturally it concerns the struggle between good and evil, with the titular mortal caught in the middle.

Again, per the Art:

BAFTA winner and Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) takes the title role in this dynamic new production of one of English drama’s oldest plays, directed by the National Theatre’s new Director Rufus Norris (Broken, London Road).

Everyman is successful, popular, and riding high when Death comes calling. He is forced to abandon the life he has built and embark on a last, frantic search to recruit a friend, anyone, to speak in his defense. But Death is close behind, and time is running out.

One of the great primal, spiritual myths, Everyman asks whether it is only in death that we can understand our lives. A cornerstone of English drama since the 15th century, it now explodes onto the stage in a startling production with words by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, and movement by Javier De Frutos.

Everyman will show Sunday, August 2nd, Monday, August 3rd, and Wednesday, August 5th.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy, I can’t really help you. But I can say that the presence of the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role is sufficient cause to get excited about this production’s possibilities. In addition to showing up in most of the movies made in the last few years (including The Imitation Game, for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and starring on the BBC’s wildly successful Sherlock series, Cumberbatch has the distinction of having appeared in one of NT Live’s most well-known broadcasts (and the third of the three great performances I mentioned above). Along with Jonny Lee Miller, Cumberbatch assayed the roles of both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature in a stirring adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle. If you’ve seen this production, then I can guarantee its residence in your memory. For those who haven’t (and I’m not advocating finding it online in a pirated format, because that would be wrong), Cumberbatch and Miller swapped roles with regularity, creating two distinct and impressive versions of the play.

For Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner, Cumberbatch is obviously the marquee draw, but it should be noted that he is joined by brilliant character actor Ciaran Hinds, who will play Claudius, uncle to Hamlet and husband to the Queen.

Hamlet will show Sunday, November 1st, and Wednesday, November 4th.

Tickets for each screening will be $15 for adults and $12.50 for seniors, students, and children. And, if I may speak from experience one more time, this is a steal.

National Theatre Live is a portal to another world and worth keeping in our community. Go, see for yourself. And if you agree, get others to do likewise. Support the arts, support local venues, and take advantage of opportunities to do both at the same time.

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