Arts & Entertainment

Critic's notebook: National Theatre's NT Live season screens big

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Late spring, give or take a couple of weeks, traditionally marks the end of the theater season. And while taking stock of the last year, I'd like to make note of a group of plays I caught in Hollywood — Helen Mirren in "Phèdre," Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in the world premiere production of Alan Bennett's "The Habit of Art" and, on Monday night in the program's ecstatic capper, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw in a revival of Dion Boucicault's " London Assurance."

Haven't heard about these offerings? Well, they were all at Mann Chinese 6. Yes, that Mann Chinese 6 — where "Iron Man 2" and "Shrek Forever After" are the big draw and the escalator ride from the parking structure to the mall seems designed to test one's junk food restraint. (Exercise some willpower, however, and each theatrical outing will set you back only about $20, plus parking.)

Although NT Live's recently concluded inaugural season hasn't made much of a blip on the cultural radar screen, I'd have to call this initiative of London's National Theatre to broadcast performances of plays to cinemas across the globe a smashing success. I missed the showings of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" and Terry Pratchett's "Nation," but the Bennett and Boucicault were thoroughly enjoyable — and best of all, they spared me a costly transatlantic pilgrimage, something I had been impractically considering ever since reading about these mouth-watering openings.

Whenever I attend an NT Live event, I have the sensation of being part of a secret society. Curious about my fellow audience members, I asked a few how they heard about "London Assurance." One small circle of friends was organized by an Englishwoman who keeps up with National Theatre doings. Another group said it had entered the NT Live loop through the Met: Live in HD circuit.

Most of the people I canvassed mentioned e-mail alerts (which you can sign up for on the National Theatre's NT Live home page: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive. And no one seemed too keen for the word to get out, an attitude akin to foodies who have discovered a little place they'd rather not see invaded by the Zagat tribes.

Theater on film is usually a neutered experience. The "liveness" of the stage — the palpable connection between actors and audience — is integral to its power. Technology, however, has improved matters, as the Metropolitan Opera's high-definition satellite broadcasts have shown over the last few years. And NT Live has been exploiting these advances to approximate as closely as possible the theatergoing experience.

The grounds of the National Theatre complex are surveyed to give you a feel of the place (yes, branding is central to the mission). Cameras capture the rustling anticipation of the audience, and a brief interview with artistic director Nicholas Hytner helps set the work into context. During a 20-minute intermission, images from inside and outside the London theater stream across the screen. And at the end, different views of the curtain call allow you to vicariously enjoy the rush of adulation enveloping the cast.

The linchpin of NT Live's effectiveness, however, is the fleet camerawork that usefully changes perspective. The productions never seem flat or static. (Depth perception is strategically employed.) Sets circulate, and as they roll in, the theatrical simultaneity of fiction and fiction-making is magically preserved.

The sophistication of the presentation — offered in a delayed exhibition in Los Angeles, which is too many time zones away to make "live" desirable — has resulted in one big surprise. I expected contemporary realism to dominate, but the works have been highly theatrical in ways that aren't what you'd encounter even in the more adventurous reaches of PBS or premium cable.

Take "The Habit of Art," which involves a group of actors in rehearsal for a play about an imaginary meeting between the poet W.H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. This multilayered work shifts between the banter of "the actors" and the dialogue of "the characters." There's a word for this — "metatheatrical" — and the playfulness it signifies is not something I thought the screen could handle. To my surprise, the complicated antics had plenty of bounce. Of course I'd still rather experience Bennett's play in person, but this next-best way is quite a convenient method of keeping abreast with the London scene.

In retrospect, "Phèdre" was probably the most resistant to the NT Live treatment, but then Racine's tragedy is a special case. Difficult to translate into English, this neoclassical work has an austerity that challenges contemporary sensibilities, even though Mirren's ferocity went a long way toward bridging the gap in centuries.

But any doubts I had about the ability of the screen to do justice to outsize stage acting were dispelled by the uproarious farcical horseplay of Beale and Shaw in "London Assurance." Beale's foppish prancing and ironic asides were as comfortably conveyed as Shaw's neighing laughter and mirthful jig. Boucicault's 1841 comedy, directed by Hytner with some modern pansexual sidespin, had an extraordinary freshness — quite a feat to pull off on the stage and definitely not one that I could have ever imagined taking pleasure in at a movie theater.

Next season's lineup features "Hamlet," "The Cherry Orchard," "Frankenstein" (staged by "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle), "A Disappearing Number" (devised by the experimental theater company Complicite) and "Fela!" Give one or two of them a crack, and pass the popcorn.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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