Like opera, like theater onscreen

Helen Mirren stars, with Dominic Cooper (above) as Hippolytus, in the National Theatre’s production of “Phèdre’’ in London. It will be broadcast live to the United States this summer. The classic play-to-film “Death of a Salesman’’ (below) is screening today in Amherst. Helen Mirren stars, with Dominic Cooper (above) as Hippolytus, in the National Theatre’s production of “Phèdre’’ in London. It will be broadcast live to the United States this summer. The classic play-to-film “Death of a Salesman’’ (below) is screening today in Amherst. (The Everett Collection (Below); Catherine Ashmore)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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Three years ago, when the Metropolitan Opera started broadcasting live performances in high definition to theaters around the country, one person watching carefully was Nicholas Hytner in London.

Hytner was artistic director of Britain’s National Theatre, and he wondered whether the live broadcast concept would work for theater as well. We’ll soon find out. Five theaters in Massachusetts are part of the pilot season of NT Live, a new initiative by National Theatre to broadcast live performances of plays onto cinema screens around the world. The first play to be broadcast is Jean Racine’s classical tragedy “Phèdre,’’ adapted by Ted Hughes, the late British poet laureate. The cast includes Helen Mirren, Dominic Cooper, and Margaret Tyzack. It’s the first time Mirren has returned to the National Theatre - one of the most prominent in the United Kingdom - since her Oscar-winning performance in “The Queen.’’

Racine’s play, written in 1677, opened in London earlier this month to rave reviews. (The Daily Express called it “a rare brilliant treat.’’) But there will be a special live performance on June 25, filmed in HD and broadcast on 70 screens in the United Kingdom and 200 in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Because of time zone constraints and scheduling issues, some theaters will broadcast the shows at a different time, ranging from a few hours later to four weeks.

Massachusetts theaters screening the play are: Cape Cinema in Dennis (June 25); Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington (June 25); Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls (June 28); Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Wellfleet (June 28); and Amherst Cinema in Amherst (July 22 and 25.) There is no Boston-area venue.

David Sabel, the producer of NT Live, says Hytner was impressed by the success of the Met’s live broadcasts, and “was very interested as to whether this is a way we could bring our work to more people.’’ When the Met Opera project started, it was broadcasting to fewer than 100 screens in seven countries; the number has grown to nearly 900 screens in 28 countries. “We thought this is a way we could reach thousands more people in one night,’’ Sabel said in a telephone interview from London.

Because National Theatre has never filmed a play before, there will be two filmed rehearsals. “Nick will have seen it and it will give him an opportunity to rescript the cameras, adjust the camera angles, and adjust the lights and sound,’’ Sabel said. “This is an experiment.’’

How well will it translate into film? “We are trying to preserve the integrity of the show, but we’re being completely upfront in saying it’s not the same experience,’’ Sabel said. “It won’t ever be as good as the live experience. But it offers a different experience for those who will not have the opportunity to come to London and see the show.’’ On the other hand, “we can do certain things you wouldn’t get if you were sitting at the back of the balcony. We’ll have the opportunity to take you close and see the emotion on Helen Mirren’s face.’’

Evidently, audiences are already excited about the prospect of getting close to Mirren. “We’re selling tickets like you wouldn’t believe,’’ said Jim Dalglish, managing director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. (Tickets to “Phèdre’’ are $22-$24 in Wellfleet, but vary from theater to theater.) He said the theater has had “incredible success’’ with the Met Opera broadcasts and he anticipates the same enthusiasm with theater.

“It’s not like a moviegoing experience,’’ Dalglish said. “People are very quiet. If you chew too loud, you’ll hear ‘shhhh.’ At the end of the arias, if they like it, they’ll applaud. They are totally riveted and engaged in it.’’

For information about NT Live and about ordering tickets, go to

Also this week
“Death of a Salesman’’ Another theater classic will come to the screen today at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Arthur Miller was written in 1949, and this film is an early screen adaptation, made in 1951.

The film garnered five Oscar nominations, and stars Frederic March as Willy Loman, the emotionally spent salesman and father (no coincidence this is scheduled for Father’s Day). It also features Mildred Dunnock as his long-suffering wife, Linda, and Kevin McCarthy and Cameron Mitchell as their sons. The screenplay was by Stanley Roberts.

Unlike most film versions of plays, this one was hailed at the time as brilliant - “a nigh exact translation of Mr. Miller’s play, both in its psychological candor and its exhibit of a bleak bourgeois milieu,’’ a New York Times reviewer wrote on Dec. 21, 1951.

Yet it’s not well known today. “I find the film extraordinary,’’ said Ilan Stavans, who teaches Jewish Studies at Amherst College. “For one thing, there’s the closeness to the text. The director went to great lengths to use almost every single line of Miller’s play in the movie. It is very literal. You get the sense that you are seeing the play turned into the movie without sacrifice.’’

Its screening at the National Yiddish Book Center leads to the question: What makes this a Jewish film? “It strikes me as a very very Jewish dilemma that [Loman] is facing,’’ said Stavans. “The economics. The anxiety about his children. The fact that he is such a nebbish. He is the personification of nebbishness.’’

“Death of a Salesman,’’ screened today at 2 p.m. at the National Yiddish Book Center, on the campus of Hampshire College. Tickets are $6.

For tickets, visit or call 413-256-4900.

Linda Matchan can be reached at

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