07/23/2009 10:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.K. National Theatre's Phedre Could Change the Reach of Theater -- or Not

In an era when entertainment and arts can be a few clicks away via a computer or hand-held device, theater remains a local event. You have to be there, in person, in a specific locale, on a specific patch of ground, during a specific time, to experience it.

Theater's real time physicality is part of its appeal, but it is also its bane. Live theater has no natural digital companion.

The UK National Theatre's production of Phedre, starring Helen Mirren, has been an attempt to change that. The June 25th performance was filmed live in London and sent via satellite to 270 movie theaters and performing arts centers around the globe. Of course, the actual "live simulcast" part worked mostly in Great Britain and Europe. In Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada and in the more than 40 venues across the U.S., the showings were time delayed by hours, days or weeks.

No matter. Phedre proved so popular that NT Live, as the pilot program is called, added screenings across the U.S. through most of July.

The Existing Challenge

The National Theater took its cue from the The Metropolitan Opera's highly successful The Met: Live in HD series. Meanwhile, attendance at The San Francisco Opera's live simulcasts has increased so much that screenings now occur at the ball park. These types of high tech experiments arguably have introduced new audiences to the art form and coaxed patrons, reluctant to part with recession dollars, into buying a ticket inside the opera house at some point.

But the National Theatre's production lacks the advantage of music to bridge the gap of the live- to-digital experience. Phedre is classic theater, based on Greek tragedy, written by 17th century playwright, Jean Racine, adapted by 20st century poet and playwright Ted Hughes. Yes, it tells a tightly plotted tale of lust, love, power and revenge run amok -- subjects, as we know, that persist unresolved and therefore never go out of style. Yet we've all seen filmed or taped plays lull viewers into mild comas -- even when the live production has thrilled audiences.

Could the National Theatre leverage its clout, new technology, and the marquee value and talent of an Oscar-winning star (who knows her way around the stage and a camera) to bring the excitement and power of live theater to a mass audience?

Live vs. Virtual

I became a participant in this experiment when I took a 17th row seat inside the NT's Lyttelton Theatre and witnessed the live press preview of Phedre on June 10th in London. Then, weeks later, I settled into a back row seat in Berkeley, California's neighborhood Elmwood movie theater to watch it in HD.

It was fascinating to see how the live stage and HD version differed, each with their strengths. In the Lyttleton Theatre, the scope and majesty of the production was in full evidence. The massive granite set created a mythic environment, its cream-colored starkness echoing the gravitas of its themes -- blame and guilt, fate and free will, abuse of power, and the rage of sexual desire and jealousy. The actors' posture and stride conveyed the characters' intentions and inner turmoil, especially Mirren as she flowed between riveting interactions with her fellow actors or crumbled into a heap of self-recrimination for lusting after her stepson, Hippolytus, played by a compelling Dominic Cooper.

With the camera focused mostly on one character or another, some of the interplay escaped in the broadcast. After Hippolytus is stunned by Phedre's sobbing confession of pent up desire for him, he rushes to a fountain, quickly opens the spigot and ducks his head under water to cool off from the intensity. The moment drew a laugh from the live audience. In the taped version, the relief for Hippolytus -- and for the audience -- was lost.

But the broadcast captured elements of the performances that the live production, at least from a 17th row seat, did not. The tight camera focus caught Mirrin's facial expressions as she swung from hope to revenge to defeat. It also discovered the nuances of Margaret Tyzack's turn as Phedre's lifelong nurse, whose Machiavellian streak took on the tone of a mother fighting to save her child.

The one weakness in the production remained obvious in both versions. Theseus, the philandering king, Phedre's husband, and Hippolytus' enraged father, looked and sounded the part. But even the close camera did not fill in the emotional gaps of Stanley Townsend's performance.

Was it worth seeing Phedre in a movie theater? Absolutely. If the National Theatre can pull off the same level of excitement around its next three satellite-beamed productions, it may eventually introduce theater to audiences whose smart phones never leave their side.

On the other hand, if you can take advantage of the dollar's power to buy more British pounds than it did a year ago and get to London, the live performance is the way to go.

It's hard to beat the sparkle of the National Theatre's complex on the Thames. And just like a taped vs. live concert, the digital experience has yet to match the electricity of human beings sharing the same physical place, at the same time, while focused on the same, real time, physical event.