What is ‘NT Live’ and what makes it so special?

What is ‘NT Live’ and what makes it so special? When you think of the best theatres in the world, what comes to mind?  For many people, the bright lights of New York City’s Broadway district tops that list.  However, for others, London’s National Theatre or West End comes to mind. In reality, there are great venues in many places but most of us in Bradford County seldom, if ever, have the chance to see performances in those upper echelon theatres – until now.

The National Theatre Live series (NT Live) being presented for the second year at the Keystone Theatre in Towanda brings films of world-class theatre productions to our own small-town theater.  This amazing cultural opportunity has ticket prices that are incomparably lower than actual theatre tickets – which often run between $100 and $200 a seat.  And NT Live uses a variety of camera angles and perspectives so that, while we see the productions on film, it is like having a seat as good – or better – than the “best seat in the house.” In addition, even though these are films, they are “live” shows – there are no re-takes so what you see is a purity of performance unlike a movie.

What is ‘NT Live’ and what makes it so special?So far this fall, NT Live has presented three classic stories at the Keystone, each done in a very different style: Medea, A Streetcar Named Desire and Frankenstein.

Medea is a tragedy based on Greek mythology. The script, written by Euripides in 431 BC is now significantly over 2000 years old! It is a terrible tale of a woman who leaves her homeland with a husband who then leaves her for a younger woman (a fairly contemporary theme for a play that old).

The character of Medea – incredibly acted by Helen McCrory – takes revenge in a brutal manner that is appalling even today. The ancient play was so intense that a woman sitting near me at this production actually got up and left before the final scenes because she knew what was coming. To me, the production was testament to how an actress and a cast can breathe life into writing and a story that might have been perceived of as dusty and out of date.

What is ‘NT Live’ and what makes it so special?While many NT Live productions are filmed at the upscale National Theatre in London (thus the name), A Streetcar Named Desire was filmed at the Young Vic Theatre in London, which prides itself on utilizing young directors, presenting new work and keeping ticket prices low so that theatre is accessible.  The original play by Tennessee Williams opened on Broadway in 1947 and was made into a movie in 1951. Both starred Marlon Brando.

Often revived, Streetcar might seem an odd choice for a theatre focused on newer works but in this case, it was made new. An outstanding cast managed to transport audiences to the sultry U.S. South and – on a transparent set completely surrounded by the audience – they stuck to the original script yet gave the play an updated feel.  Again, issues we like to think of as old-fashioned dilemmas, surfaced in ways innately human and completely contemporary.

And then there is Frankenstein, which is about the most amazing play / movie / production of any sort.

NT Live filmed two versions of this show because the two lead actors – Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – switched roles nightly when it was playing in London in 2011. By alternating between Dr. Frankenstein and his un-named Creature, both actors came to understand the characters, the play and each other more deeply than had they been stuck in a single role.

You have one more chance to see this Frankenstein in Towanda (with Miller as the Creature) on Dec. 21 at 6 p.m.

The play is based on the 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus written by 19-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  The story has been altered over the years and presented in many forms – most famously in the 1931 film with Boris Karloff as the monster/creature – but also in plays, films and cartoons so often that most of us have no idea of the deeper levels of the original story.  Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and deftly scripted by writer Nick Dear, this version also takes some liberties, primarily by giving the Creature a voice. In doing so, the play addresses the issues of “differentness,” cognitive development, parental responsibility, good and evil, nature versus nurture, dependence and revenge with an intensity that was not possible in versions with a silent or non-verbal Creature.

The staging of Frankenstein is also a riveting part of the performance. The National Theatre is high tech in every sense of the word – rain falls, grass grows, a cook fire appears with real flames and a revolving turntable in the center of the stage makes it possible to bring in a steam engine on tracks and also to create the appearance of a lake.

Despite amazing technical capabilities, the staging still has a sense of sparseness – the outer walls resemble a tent and the bank of hundreds of incandescent light bulbs punctuate emotions and scenes without inflicting garish colors. Unlike huge gaudy sets sometimes seen on Broadway, this production retains a grittier feel that serves to put the story and the actors in the forefront.  This Frankenstein leaves you unsettled and thinking. It also gives you an incredible admiration for the art and the craft of acting. One critic termed it “astonishing” and I would agree. To be able to see it in Towanda is also astonishing in my book.

New to the schedule (and not included in the brochures that are floating around) is the first NT Live film of a Broadway production: John Steinbeck’s classic short novel, Of Mice and Men.  Like Frankenstein, the story addresses issues of “differentness” in unique and brutal ways.

This new production stars James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester.  It got rave reviews for it’s entire run in New York and was nominated for two Tony awards. Just released this month, it will be at the Keystone on Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m.; March 5 at 6 p.m., and March 15 at 1 p.m.

This play is appropriate for high school students and up. The book is often read in American Literature and English classes.

Next up on Dec. 30, Jan. 4, and January 15 is Skylight, a drama starring Bill Nighy (who has played 125 roles since 1976 including major parts in Love Actually and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and Carey Mulligan (a younger actress whose breakout role was in a 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightly).

Filmed in a London West End theatre, the story focuses on the attempt to revive a relationship between an older man whose wife has just died and a younger woman with whom he had an earlier affair.

Later on Jan. 29 and 31, and on Feb. 3 is John, an adult oriented production by DV8 Physical Theatre that evolved from actual interviews with 50 men talking frankly about love and sex.  DV8 is a highly acclaimed dance-theatre company with over 50 national and international awards.

This show relies heavily on movement and spoken word to tell the story of “John” whose struggles to survive included years of crime and drug use. It contains adult themes, strong language and nudity so please note that it is not suitable for those under 18 years old.

To balance out the adult rated John, the final play on the current schedule is Treasure Island, an adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s famous 1883 pirate novel for young folks – which will run at the Keystone on Feb. 16, 19 and 22. A “coming-of-age” story replete with murder, money, mutiny and buccaneers, this play is suitable for age 10 and up. Because this production will not be released until late January, there is little information available about it.

This is just a portion of what NT Live is. Last year’s showings included an amazing puppetry version of War Horse and intense performances of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, among others. NT Live allows those who don’t have access to expensive theatre tickets to see, feel and experience some of the greatest contemporary actors and plays in the world today. These are productions that challenge the emotions and our beliefs about the world.  They take us beyond where we are to somewhere new. They go beyond being entertainment – although they are that as well. They help to define great theatre as an art form.

Tickets for upcoming NT Live productions can be purchased at the door or in advance at www.bcrac.org. Check the website or call the Keystone Theatre at(570) 268-2787 for specific show times.