National Theatre Live Marks Decade of Stage-to-Screen With Immersive ‘Midsummer’

Valentina I. Valentini

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National Theatre Live has filmed nearly eight dozen theatrical productions over the last decade, bringing theater to the cinema using top technologies and talents in the videography space. This month, on the eve of its 10th anniversary, its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is challenging the technical producers and crew with an immersive stage version directed by Nicholas Hytner and the filmed version directed by Ross MacGibbon.

Hytner’s version of Shakespeare’s classic ran over the summer at London’s The Bridge Theatre and started screening Oct. 17 in more than 50 cinemas worldwide. The cleverly designed production, starring “Game of Thrones’” Gwendolyn Christie and Oliver Chris, entwines sets and audience and includes trained acrobats, gender-fluidity, dance and musical numbers and moveable set pieces.

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Camera operator Mike Callan, who has shot National Theatre Live’s “War Horse,” “Fleabag” and others, says more prep than usual was required for this production because the actors, audience and sets all were in motion. “We chose wireless camera equipment within the performance area to minimize disruption to the audience, but also to allow flexibility to get to areas of the set where if we were cabled we would struggle to access,” he says.

Almost all of National Theatre Live’s productions over the past 10 years have been broadcast live, requiring intense preparations for each to minimize hiccups. The technical production team will have seen the show, watched it via a recording and had two camera rehearsals during real shows.

In this case, considering there were more than 1,000 scripted shots for seven cameras in a two-hour-20-minute show, the prep was essential to the typical challenge of capturing actors live, as well as following the audience live — it’s not just theater in the round, it’s theater in the round with an audience smack in the middle.

“You don’t want to get in the way of any standing audience member and disrupt their enjoyment of the show, and you also don’t want to miss filming any key moments,” says Callan.

Technical producer Julia Nelson says this production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is especially challenging for camera and lighting directors. Nelson and Christopher Bretnall have been technical producers on the series since its first broadcast, “Phèdre,” starring Helen Mirren.

“In [most] plays, an actor will land on his or her line standing in a particular place, normally facing the audience in front of them,” she says. “In this show, they’re facing all directions.”

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