'National Theatre Live': Far-flung peformances, complete with issues

Watching live theater on video, especially theater that wasn't crafted with video in mind, can be an uncomfortable experience. Acting designed to play to the back row of a big auditorium will often appear over-the-top when viewers get a close-up look of a spittle-spewing performance; there is a loss of the fusion of energy between actor and spectactor that gives a live performance its magical edge.


But that doesn't mean that I won't give it a try, which is why I trooped out in boiling-water-freezing-in-seconds weather to take in a broadcast of Hamlet last night at the Guthrie Theater as part of the National Theatre Live series. After all, the production has earned rave notices in England, both for its cast and its particular take on the state of Denmark, imagined by director Nicholas Hytner as an Eastern-European police state with nearly constant surviellance.

It turned out to be a hit-and-miss evening. The acting was suburb from top to bottom, led by Rory Kinnear as the brooding Dane. The modern trappings didn't interfere much with the action, and the idea of eyes constantly watching you played well with the action and themes of the plot. After all, this is a play where people are constantly watching and plotting--often to their own downfall (just ask poor Polonius).

Most of my discomfort came from the way the video was shot rather than the way the play was staged. The production employed mutliple cameras at a live show to give the feel of a film. The problem was that the show wasn't staged as a film, so the acting often felt off. The closeups didn't give me a sense of where the actors were onstage in relation to each other or how the ensemble worked as a whole. Also, Director Hytner built up some excitement for the set during his pre-show comments, and then the director of the video commensed to only give us glimpes of the set, focusing so much on individual actors that this vital element of the production was never fully illustrated.

Sahr Ngaujah in the National Theatre production of FELA!

Sahr Ngaujah in the National Theatre production of FELA!

Enough frustration. After all, the series does at least give far-flung audiences a chance to see productions that will likely never tour to their cities. The upcoming National Theatre broadcasts include Fela! next Thursday, Derek Jacobi as King Lear on February 21, and Danny Boyle's interpretation of Frankenstein on April 3.