At the Movies: National Theatre Fifty Years on Stage

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England's National Theatre has just had its 50th anniversary, and to celebrate they released a film of gala performance which was broadcast live on BBC Two and in cinemas across the world via NT Live.

National Theatre Live
 
A selection of scenes from iconic plays which have been performed there since it opened its doors in 1963 were re-enacted, along with archived footage and documentary inserts. It was a potpourri of Shakespeare, American musicals, Avant Garde theatre and comedies written by Britain's foremost playwrights.

Many of the original actors made a brief comeback to revisit the roles they had played in their younger years. Young actors who have recently performed there were also included.

We saw the movie of National Theatre Fifty Years on Stage and really enjoyed the star studded party atmosphere. It was almost as good as being there in person.

Some of the highlights were:

  • A white haired Judi Dench, who played Cleopatra in 1987 in her younger years, poignantly re-enacting her elegy to Antony
  • Mr Bennett, the 79 year old who wrote the play The History Boys taking on the role of Hector the wickedly funny and eccentric schoolmaster.
  • Peter Nichol's hilarious take-off on the British Health Services ( enough to put any patient off)
  • Clive Rowe exuberantly playing Nicely-Nicely in the musical theatre Guys and Dolls again. It was first performed at the National in 1982.
  • Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnaer representing the younger generation playing an excerpt from this Year's Othello in a contemporary setting.

Judi Dench, National TheatreNT Live is a recent initiative by London's National Theatre in which their productions are filmed and broadcast in real time to cinemas around the world. In New Zealand they arrive on hard drive a few weeks later.

Regular broadcasts of its plays to cinemas worldwide is financially lucrative for the National Theatre and makes them accessible to people who can't travel to London to attend the actual performances at a very affordable price.

A criticism that has been made is that being able to see such high quality drama at the movies will make people lose interest in their local professional theatres. I think that the opposite could well happen i.e. that it will make people excited about plays again.

It is most unfortunate that Wellington and Auckland no longer have professional theatres. Wellington's Downstage was forced to close its doors this year after 5 decades when Creative New Zealand pulled a plug on its funding. In Auckland the Mercury ran out of money much earlier and closed its doors in 1992. The South Island is faring better. The Court Theatre in Christchurch is still vibrantly up and running and has relocated to new premises since the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. And the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2014.

A stronger public interest in seeing high quality drama could, with renewed support from Creative New Zealand and private sponsors lead to the rebirth of professional theatres in Wellington and Auckland. I hope it will happen, that would be great,

In the meantime, being able to go and see National Theatre plays at the movies is a pleasure not to be missed.

Find out more about Fifty Years on Stage and future performances by the National Theatre.