You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How National Theatre Brings Its Live Plays to the Movies

For nearly a decade, National Theatre Live has brought live theater from London’s acclaimed Royal National Theatre to a global audience, broadcasting productions such as “Hamlet” and “War Horse” via satellite to movie theaters all over the world.

“It’s unadulterated, unedited, no post-production,” says Creative Broadcast Solutions’ Chris Bretnall, who has served as National Theatre Live’s technical producer since the initiative’s inception.

The goal is “to replicate — as best as we possibly can — the experience you’re going to get seeing a play in the Lyttelton Theatre or the Olivier or the Dorfman and give you the best seat in the house in whichever country, whichever time zone you might be in,” Bretnall says.

The next play coming to U.S. movie theaters courtesy of National Theatre Live is “Julie” on Sept. 6. The modern take on August Strindberg’s 1888 play “Miss Julie” stars Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa.

National Theatre Live began working with the creative team behind the “Julie” revival — playwright Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell — well before rehearsals or set construction began, in order to figure out from a technical and creative perspective how to best capture the performance for the 2D cinema screen.

“If you and I sat watching ‘Julie’ in the auditorium, we’d use our eyes, our ears, our brains to selectively and subconsciously focus on what we need to build the story in our own minds,” Bretnall says. “If you’re sitting in a cinema, you can’t do that. You have to rely on the screen director to tell you that story. That’s the great challenge on every play we do, but a great privilege, too, to be allowed to take somebody else’s vision for a stage setting and bring it into a cinema.”

No two plays are staged in the same way, so the National Theatre Live team always faces new challenges. In the case of “Julie,” which is playing at
London’s Lyttelton Theatre, “the set is really, really deep, and they play it deeply,” says Bretnall. “If there’s dialogue that’s played across the stage, as there often is, it’s not always delivered straight out.” Bretnall also notes that there are crucial party scenes in the play. “You have to get the camera angles all around,” he notes.

All National Theatre Live performances are shot in 1080 high definition at a minimum, Bretnall says. A number of productions have also been shot in 4K ultra-HD and in high dynamic range, even though not many cinemas are equipped for such high quality. Whether or not a ready movie theater can be found, those performances are being preserved for future showings on the formats.

Audio, too, is high end, Bretnall notes. “The sound is never less than 5.1, usually 7.1, for the latest Dolby Digital technology that movie theaters have,” he explains.

The National Theatre Live team, made up of a couple dozen skilled craftspeople and engineers, has never experienced a major technical glitch or lost a show during a live broadcast. It’s an enviable record, and one not taken lightly. Says Bretnall, “We put lots of resilience in the capture chain and in the broadcast chain.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content