Cinemas across the world are now showing live performances from the National Theatre. But will anyone turn up?by John Nathan / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
London Assurance in Finland, photographed by the author: struggling to find an audience
Helena Pikkarainen, her husband Timo and their 16-year-old daughter Keela are on their way to see their first ever National Theatre production: the 19th-century farce London Assurance. From their home, it will take about 30 minutes to drive to their destination—not bad going considering they live in the tidy northern Finnish village of Tyrnaevae, 200km south of the Arctic Circle.
In December, Tyrnaevae’s days last just three hours. At this point in late June, though, it is warm and the sun has been up for 22 of the last 24 hours. Helena and her family are heading for the city of Oulu (home to the world air-guitar championships) because NT Live is coming to town.
London Assurance is the fifth and final play in the pilot season of NT Live, an initiative that sees the National Theatre broadcasting selected performances to cinemas across the world—320 in the case of London Assurance. From Narva in Estonia to Wagga Wagga in Australia, for two hours and 40 minutes Hollywood is in competition with a Victorian farce starring two of the finest classical actors in theatre: Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw.
At the eight-screen Finnkino cinema in Oulu, the films on offer include the latest Twilight feature, The A-Team, Robin Hood and Vaehaen Kunnioitusta—the only Finnish production being shown. The film’s heroine is a disabled teenager. Helena’s daughter doesn’t like Finnish films—she thinks they’re boring. The last time she was at the Finnikino it was to watch Wolfman.
The queue at the box office is supervised by a giant dog wearing dark glasses—a model of Marmaduke, the galumphing Great Dane of the eponymous comic strip and Hollywood movie. Behind Marmaduke, the words London Assurance shine out from the electronic display. The production went down a storm with London critics, but sandwiched between The A-Team and Robin Hood it looks a little incongruous.
The broadcast has already started by the time Helena and family enter. The play proper has not yet begun—instead there is a playful preface to establish a carnival atmosphere. Jugglers are entertaining the South Bank crowd. Behind them is a huge NT Live logo. Perhaps brand-promotion is the point here, but judging by messages left on NT Live’s Facebook page these preliminaries don’t go down too well.