The National Theatre will for the first time this year offer live television broadcasts of its productions, commencing on 25 June 2009 with a performance of Phedre starring Helen Mirren, who will also spearhead a campaign to raise awareness of the new “NT Live” initiative.

The Phedre performance in the NT Lyttelton will be transmitted, live and for one time only, to 50 independent cinemas and arts centres across the UK (though all outside of central London), with a further 100 foreign venues earmarked to receive the transmission within 24 hours, depending on time differences.

Initially a six- to nine-month pilot, NT Live will continue with nominated broadcast performances of three further productions (which ones have yet to be decided, though they may include the West End transfer of War Horse).

According to NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, who announced the plans at a press briefing (See Today\'s Other News for programming announcements) at the South Bank complex today (14 January 2009), the purpose of NT Live is get the work of the National seen by a much wider audience. The hope is that some 10,000 will watch the UK broadcast of Phedre, as opposed to the maximum 900 who could see it on one night in the Lyttelton.

If the pilot proves successful, NT Live will be rolled out to more NT productions on a year-round basis, with further possibilities for Internet and television access. The National needs an additional £200,000 for the pilot scheme – with each broadcast estimated to cost £50,000 – which it is looking to raise through sponsorship. Hytner intends that, through revenue from cinema tickets (charged at £10) and foreign broadcasts, NT Live will eventually become self-funding.

“It felt to us that somebody’s got to try this,” Hytner said today. “If it works, it will be a tremendous step forward.”

No “playing safe” in recession

NT Live isn’t the only ambitious – and costly - new initiative planned at the National in 2009, despite recession worries. After the success of the Sunday openings pilot this past autumn (See News, 17 Sep 2008), which saw audiences at 100% capacity for Sunday matinees of War Horse, Oedipus and in-i, the NT will resume Sunday openings in July 2009, becoming a permanent seven-day-a-week operation. Building refurbishment plans, care of architects Haworth Tompkins, are also under way.

Most importantly, said Hytner, “we’re not going to stop spending money on our repertoire” and particularly on what, on paper, might seem “barking mad” prospects which subsequently turn out to be hugely popular hits. “I wouldn’t know how to play it safe,” he said. Rather, he aims to keep “playing dangerous … Keeping the grit always in the oyster seems to me absolutely essential here”; without the grit, “our various publics would lose faith in us”.

In short, the NT’s recession plan, said Hytner, is “to be as adventurous as we can and to keep ticket prices down”. To date, he added, the National has not felt the effect of the “economic doom” with audiences for the six months from July at 93% capacity, advance bookings strong and corporate sponsorship “running at absolutely historic levels”.

NOTE: A separate report on NT programming plans announced today is still being written. Please check back shortly for updates.

- by Terri Paddock