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From Stage to Screen, More or Less

July 13, 2016

Nothing is quite like watching a play in a Broadway house or West End theatre.  There you are in the dark surrounded by an international audience and exchanging energy with live actors.  Each performance is unique and your experience of it a special moment preserved in time.  Yet cost and simple logistics mean that many people will never encounter this sensation.  It is for them that I am particularly grateful to the artistic community endeavoring to bring more stage to movie and television screens.

Arguably the most successful of these efforts is National Theater Live (http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk).  Since 2009, this extraordinary initiative has brought some of the best of British theater to movie houses around the world.  These productions are filmed with a live audience and brilliantly shot to give the viewer a sense of sitting in the best seat in the house.  Thanks to NTLive’s creative teams, over half a million fans were able to see Benedict Cumberbatch in his sold out role of Hamlet.  Many of the most popular productions are repeated over the years including Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein also with Benedict Cumberbatch alongside Jonny Lee Miller,  Helen Mirren’s Tony and Olivier Award winning performance in The Audience, and newly minted nighttime host James Corbin in One Man Two Guvnors.   Typically priced between $20-$25 in the US, this is an unbeatable bargain that comes as close to live theater as anything can.

In June 2016, BroadwayHD took its maiden voyage into live streaming a big musical to living rooms everywhere — at least those equipped with an Apple TV or Roku.  This subscription service was founded in 2015 by Broadway producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley.  Their feat of negotiating with unions and creative teams to allow the delightful production of She Loves Me to be broadcast from Studio 54 is remarkable.  There were some to-be-expected technical glitches, but a large audience was able to enjoy a top-notch Broadway show without coughing up $100 or even leaving the house.  The venture should bring a new revenue stream to the New York theater community without taking away from ticket sales (as happened with the Metropolitan Opera) by primarily focusing on productions with limited runs.  I would argue strenuously that extending viewership to encompass cellphones is a huge mistake.  It’s tough enough to migrate magic to a 48” television screen.

The latest effort to bring quality theater straight to you is The Dresser, a BBC production digitally aired on STARZ and then distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment on DVD (www.anchorbayentertainment.com).  Adapted from the 1980 London West End and 1981 Broadway productions, it boasts two shining stars of stage and screen: Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins.  The script by Ronald Harwood is a meditation on aging, legacy and friendship.  Unlike NTLive, Richard Eyre directed this iteration more as a film than a play.  An excellent film version with Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay as his dresser, Norman, was released in 1983.  Casting a significantly older actor as Norman (McKellen) enhances the melancholy air and the weight time plays throughout.  Perhaps this is why the piece never really lifts off and becomes a slightly slow slog even at 109 minutes.  Having seen Mr. McKellen recently in Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Hopkins many moons ago in Equus, I know the quiet power they both posses on stage.  In extreme close-up, this becomes more bluster than directed energy.  I sincerely hope the next attempt by this group is superior.

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