Dame Helen is live and in HD as National Theatre's Phèdre is beamed into cinemas worldwide

Tonight, when Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production of Racine's Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, is broadcast via satellite from the Lyttelton to 70 cinemas in the UK, and 200 around the world, a 21st-century solution will be provided to a perennial question. It has been pondered by every NT director, from Laurence Olivier in the 1960s to Nicholas Hytner today: "How do we ensure that as many people as possible can see live performances that can play only to around 1,000 at a time?"

Surely television can "tour" NT work into every home in the land? More than a dozen productions, such as Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce (1977) and the 1997 King Lear, with Ian Holm, have been impressively transplanted to television studios after their NT runs. But stage performances change to suit camera angles and five-minute takes; TV viewers sitting home alone do not see what theatregoers saw and, by their collective reaction, influenced. The problem with the "authentic", cheaper alternative, observed Richard Eyre in 1996, while still NT director, is that "if you just squirt a camera at a stage... it will always look clumsy and undernourished compared to TV drama... It [is] a wholesale dilution of the theatrical original."

What, though, if a play were relayed live from stage to cinema screens, watched by hundreds in every location?

"We can be more sophisticated than opera in the way we film," says Hytner. With as few as half a dozen performances per production, if opera houses reduced seating to accommodate cameras they would suffer a much greater loss of revenue than the National, with its runs of 50-plus performances and lower seat prices. As Hytner found when his Royal Opera House production of Verdi's Don Carlos was relayed from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square last summer, "opera has to squeeze cameras into not very good positions, to shoot pre-sold, full-price performances, and they can't rehearse the filming, whereas we can." Robin Lough, the NT Live director, will position six cameras, reducing the Lyttelton's capacity and slightly impeding the view for some patrons on the night (which is why tickets for 25 June were held back from advance sale and priced at £10).

Phèdre has already been performed 14 times in public, and there have been two four-hour rehearsals with the company to allow for HD camera-friendly adjustments to make-up and lighting. Hytner and Lough will review this footage before finalising the camera script, which will switch from close-up to medium, wide or tracking shots, although Hytner will encourage his cast to perform for the house, not the cameras, and expects the editing to follow the rhythm of a sports telecast rather than a movie: "With football, the TV director's job is to choose the angle viewers would most like to see if they were at Wembley. That's the aesthetic we're aiming for: to be NT Live audiences' eyes and ears, and show the stage area they'd be most likely to look at in the Lyttelton."

Some NT Live screens are as wide as the Lyttelton stage, and even the smallest can preserve the human scale at the heart of theatrical performance better than the largest wide-screen TV.

Phèdre's energy and pacing will reflect the responses of cast and audience, and although cinemagoers at Cambridge's Arts Picturehouse or Kino Aero in Prague will be excluded from that relationship, they will, surely, respond to one another, as witnesses to a unique, live event.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power