On this side of the Atlantic, we often hear of fabulous productions of Shakespearean plays being staged over on the West End and elsewhere in London, with renowned actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, who starred as “Hamlet” in 2015 at the National Theatre.
Rarely are those shows revived in New York or LA, so unless we grab a plane ticket to England, we can’t share in those theatrical experiences.
But with the expanding trend of institutions such as the National Theatre Live and Royal Shakespeare Company broadcasting live performances of classical works to cinemas around the world, plane tickets aren’t absolutely necessary. Those global transmissions, akin to the Metropolitan Opera’s longtime “Live in HD” series, make it possible for American theater fans to see, for instance, NTL’s production of “Antony & Cleopatra,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo, which was presented in September to dazzling reviews and will be broadcast to the Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 Thursday night; and RSC’s live, futuristic interpretation of Shakespeare’s war epic “Troilus & Cressida” at Stratford-upon-Avon, which will be broadcast to the local Laemmle theater next Monday and Tuesday. The Bolshoi Ballet’s presentation of “Don Quixote” will likewise be broadcast to the moviehouse the following week.
Such high-profile broadcasts generally emanate from established venues on par in scale and reputation with the Ahmanson in LA, and with their first-rate production values and limited availability, they arrive with a sense of occasion. They are not mutually exclusive from local, live productions, though they prompt questions worth considering. It hasn’t yet been statistically quantified how or whether they help broaden audience appreciation of classic repertoire, nor has their financial effect on attendance at local 99-seat houses been determined. Anecdotally, what’s clear is they spark an energizing buzz in the existing theater community.
“When I go to those, I often know many people in the audience, and that means I’m seeing my fellow theater professionals,” says director Jessica Kubzansky, who recently helmed Sarah B. Mantell’s “Merchant of Venice”-inspired “Everything That Never Happened” at Boston Court Pasadena, and who is preparing to direct Shakespeare’s “Othello” at A Noise Within, which specializes in classical repertoire.
“What’s exciting about it is that, for those of us who can’t fly across the pond regularly, it does give us a sense of choices people are making. It’s a way to be part of the global theater conversation, and for that I really appreciate it.”
“The more theater you see, the more inspired you are to create it. I don’t know if it serves as an entry point for patrons, but I would love to hope that it does,” says Jenny Smith Cohn, patron and donor services manager at Boston Court Pasadena. She ticks off a list of classical broadcasts she has seen, including a Fellini-esque twist on the Kenneth Branagh-directed “Romeo & Juliet” and a screening of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning work “Angels of America” that took place before the London production was transferred to Broadway.
“They take act breaks just like they do in the theater, and everyone’s still having a real in-the-moment response to what they’re seeing, even though the actors have been filmed months ago,” Smith Cohn says. “It is an interesting hybrid between a movie and a playgoing experience.”
These are not static productions; full use is made of camera angles. That differentiates them from stage productions designed specifically for intimate live experience — which, as Kubzansky points out, is the reason to create in a theater instead of a studio.
“I suppose it’s a communal experience if everyone’s sitting in a movie theater together, but I’m not sure it’s the same if the people on the stage are not live,” she says. “Because there is an exchange between the audience and actor that is inevitable and wonderful.”
It’s worth noting that a number of classic plays will be mounted on area stages in the coming months. The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Welcome to Illyria!,” an irreverent retelling of “Twelfth Night,” is running through Dec. 16 in downtown LA. “Othello” opens at A Noise Within on Feb. 10, and in March the company is slated to present “Argonautika,” Mary Zimmerman’s translation of the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Atwater Village’s Independent Shakespeare Company annual iambic lab will present several Shakespeare-themed offerings between Feb. 2 and 16; its production of “Julius Caesar” will open March 16. A full production of Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters” will open at Parson’s Nose Feb. 9; “The Merchant of Venice” will follow in May.
Plane tickets won’t be needed to experience those shows either.
“NT Live: Antony & Cleopatra” screens at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6; $18. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Troilus & Cressida” screens at the Playhouse at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10, and 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11; $16 Monday/$12 Tuesday. The Bolshoi Ballet’s “Don Quixote” screens at the Playhouse at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17, and at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18; $16 Monday/$12 Tuesday. Info: (310) 478-3836. ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk, onscreen.rsc.org.uk, laemmle.com