Throughout the first five years of his tenure at the helm of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris has been a strong proponent of promoting the brand beyond the walls of the company’s brutalist building on the South Bank.
In addition to touring productions to Broadway, the West End, regional theatres and schools, he has also worked hard to develop NT Live across the globe. More recently, it has launched National Theatre Collection on Drama Online, a digital library platform created by Bloomsbury Publishing.
This last creation is a unique online resource that has been specifically designed to benefit students, typically via their schools and colleges. Educational institutions can subscribe for a one-off payment, which would bring a number of basic benefits and, if they choose, expand the resource available to their students.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the collection is also being offered free of charge to state schools and state-funded further education colleges across the UK via remote access.
The basic product should contain enough material to turn any even mildly enthusiastic youngster into a theatre lover. At present, they will have free access to 30 of the best productions offered by NT Live.
This gives them the opportunity to view high quality videos of unforgettable nights out at the National but also many other major London theatres.
Everyone will have favourites, but the chance to enjoy Sir Nicholas Hytner’s Shakespearean hits including the recent Bridge Theatre Julius Caesar with Ben Whishaw or Rory Kinnear proving his star quality in Hamlet and Othello (opposite Adrian Lester) at the National is great start. There are also a couple of Shakespeare adaptations for children including The Winter’s Tale.
Sometimes one forgets the contribution made by the Australians in recent times, largely thanks to the efforts of David Lan at the Young Vic. He has brought in Simon Stone’s updating of Yerma with Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell, which is one of the finest London nights out in years, while Benedict Andrews’s work with Tennessee Williams provides strong competition. Who can forget Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Kirby and in Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller, Jack O’Connell and Colm Meaney?
Amongst the host team’s new work is a double dose of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein featuring both Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller as the monster / Professor. Recently added to the roster is last year’s fantastic stage adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, directed by Norris himself.
If all of this sounds a little too serious, then youngsters can also roll around in the (home) aisles watching James Corden bouncing around in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors or Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw and Michelle Terry milking the laughs in an unlikely comic classic, London Assurance by Dion Boucicault.
Amazingly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. As well as the videos, there are also teacher resources, typically featuring a learning pack and in some cases rehearsal insights.
There is much more in a series of individual collections, although these require further subscriptions.
This includes almost 1,700 plays from Bloomsbury, including Methuen Drama and Arden Shakespeare as well as Faber & Faber, plus production stills from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the American Shakespeare Center. In addition, many more plays and books on the theatre can be sourced from smaller publishers such as Nick Hern Books.
The NT Live selection is supplemented by many more videos from the likes of the BBC, the RSC and the Globe.
Audio offerings are available from the US’s premier radio theatre company, LA Theatre Works.
As if all of this was not enough, there are also regular special features such as “Modern and Contemporary Female Playwrights—a brief history” and many other in-depth areas for those wishing to pursue rather more serious research.
There can be no doubt that this marvellous project will entice and enthuse a new generation of theatre lovers. At the very least, they will have an opportunity to fall in love with some of the finest productions of the last decade.
Those lucky enough to attend schools or further education establishments with the finance to purchase the additional modules will be able to go much further, learning in detail about every aspect of the stage and beyond.
To date, the National Theatre has been very protective of its recordings, showing them live in cinemas and occasionally bringing them back on a similar basis for new audiences.
The National Theatre Collection expands their availability to educational establishments but it seems a pity for such an amazing resource to be hidden from the wider world. Perhaps, like the Metropolitan Opera House with its Live in HD recordings, one day the powers that be might consider opening the subscriber base up to anyone interested in becoming involved on a commercial basis. That would be a great service, not to mention an opportunity to build up the coffers, which must be suffering terribly at a time when all theatres are closed down indefinitely.
It is all very well for theatre critics to opine on the experience, but the good news is that the target audience has been enthusiastic as well. To quote from a gushing Monique, an obviously newly-hooked year nine student at Cathedral Academy Wakefield after seeing Frankenstein, “it was a different way to watch a play but one I really enjoyed… I’d like to thank the National Theatre for this wonderful experience” of what her drama teacher described as an “amazing resource”, helping viewers to “understand the whole process from concept to performance… allowing students to think about the broader picture of theatre”. There is little doubt that the pleasure expressed by Monique will be echoed by many thousands from her peer group.