It’s a movie. It’s a play. It’s National Theatre Live, the 2-year-old film initiative that brings the best of the British boards from London’s National Theatre to international movie screens. Now, thanks to a partnership with NCM Fathom, they’re adding 200 more U.S. sites, starting with today’s showing of the James Corden-led, rapturously reviewed (and possibly Broadway-bound) One Man, Two Guvnors. Then comes Arnold Wesker’s ’50s-set The Kitchen on Nov. 3, Trainspotting scribe John Hodge’s newest, The Collaborators (about an imagined meeting between Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin) on Dec. 1, and comedian Lenny Henry in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors on Mar. 1. Are you excited? ‘Cause I’m excited. But does it really count as seeing theater? (I’m sorry, theatre.)
In my mind, no — though I’d like to read your opinions below — and not just because the actors on stage can’t hear your cell phone ringing. National Theatre Live actually offers you a better view than you’ll ever see from the orchestra. Last season’s airing of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein featured a bird’s-eye view shot that spiraled downward into a close-up of prone Benedict Cumberbatch’s ginger backside. It was pretty sweet — but something you would never see from the audience. I’m not sure I like that. Each showing also includes DVD-like extras, such as a documentary about the production (Frankenstein) or an interview with the creatives (The Kitchen). It’s cool, but it’s also an odd experience to have someone telling you how to read his work before or while you’re watching it. As far as I know, Arthur Laurents never hobbled out during the intermission of Gypsy to explain Mama Rose’s motivation. And, call me old-fashioned, but no one should be allowed to get sick on Junior Mints (as I did during an early screening of The Kitchen) or eat an entire pizza (like the people in front of me) while watching a play. Fact.
Yet, The Kitchen was absolutely the best thing I’ve seen all year (and I saw The Normal Heart and Jerusalem, twice) — even from the distance of a film screen and with the smell of hot pepperoni. And the only way I, as a New Yorker, got to enjoy Tom Brooke’s excellent tragicomic performance as an angry German émigré working in a West End restaurant or the other 28 (yes, 28) actors fake cook their talented hearts out was through NT Live. It’s helped British theater reach over 500,000 people in 22 countries (or, more accurately, helped them reach British theater). However corny this sounds, I was — and will continue to be — happily one of them. Will you?