Londoners Pleased With Live Broadcast Of 'Phedre'

The National Theatre on the South Bank in London is broadcasting its first live play out to the world from Iceland to South Africa. Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren stars in the 17th century play Phedre, written in Alexandrine verse. At an ordinary movie theatre in the London suburb of Brixton, locals give their thoughts on the play.

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In London, plays are such a hot ticket that people often line up around the block just to get in. Now, the National Theatre hopes people will line up around the world. The National has started beaming its plays out live to movie theaters from Iceland to Australia, to dozens of multiplexes here in the United States. The program known as NT Live started this week with the performance of a classic tragedy.

NPR's Rob Gifford has our story.

ROB GIFFORD: London's National Theatre is following in the footsteps of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which recently began beaming its operas around the world. And The National has secured a worldwide star in the title role of its first offering. Helen Mirren swaps her crown as Elizabeth II in the movie "The Queen" for the colossal role of the Greek Queen Phedre, in the classic play of the same name by French writer Jean Racine.

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): I'm very happy to have the opportunity to play Phedre. This is a rich and a complex and a demanding role, and to be part of NT Live, this grand, new adventure for The National Theatre. We want our work, after all, to be seen by as many people as possible. And for this one night, our audience will be all over the U.K. and all over the world, as well. And that's exciting.

GIFFORD: Phedre is not exactly light fare. Believing her absent husband, Theseus, to be dead, Phedre confesses her passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, to his face. But then, ancient Greek drama being what it is, of course, her husband returns safe and sound. Phedre, fearing that her confession of love to her stepson will be exposed, preemptively accuses him of rape. And, well, let's just say it doesn't end happily ever after.

Director Nicholas Hytner calls the play fantastically emotional and violently passionate, and says filming it with five cameras helped bring the intensity of the play into movie theaters.

Mr. NICHOLAS HYTNER (Director, "Phedre"): We're not trying to make a wannabe movie, but we are wanting to use all the technology and all the artistry available to us to make it as exciting a cinematic experience as we can. We want those people in the cinema to feel something of what it feels like to be in the theater.

GIFFORD: Hytner says the title role is one of the two or three greatest parts for an actress to play, but he's aware that many people may come to see it because it's Helen Mirren. The test, he says, will be with the following three live broadcasts in coming months: Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well," a new play called "Nation" based on a book by Terry Pratchett, and a new play by National favorite, Alan Bennett.

Mr. HYTNER: It will be interesting to see how many people want to see "All's Well That Ends Well," which has an absolute top flight National Theatre cast, none of whom have any particular film profile, but all of whom are superb Shakespeareans. That will be really revealing. If there's an audience for Shakespeare done extremely well but without any eye-catching television stars, then we know we're on to a winner.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. THERESA BURKE(ph): The language was excellent and all the cast were brilliant.

GIFFORD: At a movie theater in Brixton, South London, just a few miles as the crow flies about a million miles culturally from The National Theatre, Theresa Burke and her friend went to see the live broadcast of "Phedre" on Thursday night. Like many here, she had wanted to see the play at the National.

Ms. BURKE: We tried to get tickets, and all the performances were booked out. So, it's obviously an opportunity to see it when otherwise we wouldn't be able to.

GIFFORD: A long-term London resident, Italian Ava Delputso(ph) and Londoner Mack Crowder(ph), the experiment was well worthwhile, and presenting a 17th century play originally written in Alexandrine verse in French doesn't seemed to have scared them off.

Ms. AVA DELPUTSO: Because they've got five cameras, they actually can bring you the actors much closer. And I thought it was absolutely riveting. And I think that it should be brought to the masses much more in this way.

Mr. MACK CROWDER: I live in London. I haven't been to the National Theatre since I've lived in London. And then suddenly, it's in cinema and I go and see it. Certainly, that's a testimony to the fact that it worked.

GIFFORD: The National Theatre production of "Phedre" by Jean Racine went out in some movie theaters live last Thursday. But in many, especially American theaters from Chicago to New York, from Berkeley, California, to Amherst, Massachusetts, it will be screened as live in the coming days.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

(Soundbite of music)

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