The figures are in and almost 14,000 people in the UK saw Phedre last Thursday night, broadcast live from London’s National Theatre to 73 screens across the country (about 88 percent capacity) and over 200 further screens worldwide, including Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
Phedre is a thumpingly classical, no-interval Greek tragedy, directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) from Ted Hughes’ adaptation of the Racine play. Although its single set is a beauty to behold, you couldn’t call this play cinematic. Helen Mirren, though, as the lustful queen and Dominic Cooper as the hunky object of her affections, are hot box office tickets: but the National’s idea is to play outside the cinema box.
Phedre and the National’s screen initiative, called NT Live, follows on from the Metropolitan Opera’s successful cinema screenings of its repertoire (Picturehouse in the UK reports that on some screens, the Met’s 2009/2010 season is already sold out).
Hytner, also director of the NT, set up NT Live under David Sabel to showcase the National’s repertoire on cinema screens; NT Live has a exposure to box office risk and is intended ultimately to function as a self-sustaining business model.
Sabel’s NT Live acted as distributor in the UK, negotiating directly with the exhibitors (including Picturehouse’s 24 screens, but also select Vue and Odeon theatres). Funding from the Arts Council, Nesta and Travelex is helping the first season to get up and running: “This mix of subsidy, sponsorship, and a certain exposure to box office risk is typical of NT projects,” says Sabel.
The box office risk comes in part because of a determination to keep the ticket price down to £10 (the Met’s operas currently retail at £25). “Our hope is that as we widen the distribution, we can build a self-sustaining business model,” says Sabel.
Hytner and Sabel wanted the pilot NT season to showcase the legendary theatre company’s repertoire: thus, a classical play (Phedre), followed by Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well on October 1) and a children’s play (Nation) directed by Mark Ravenhill on Jan 30 (the National has some serious form with this, having produced His Dark Materials and the spellbinding War Horse). Rounding out the season and surely a hot ticket is Alan Bennett’s (The History Boys) new play The Habit Of Art with Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour in early 2010.