U.K. National Theatre Collection

U.K. National Theatre Collection
Karyn Henry
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Dec 9, 2020

U.K. National Theatre Collection– a new streaming video service that makes the best of British theatre available worldwide to libraries, schools and universities– should be on the radar of all theater nerds or the theater curious.  The collection features a unique archive of 30 high quality video recordings of world-class productions to fit every taste: Shakespeare, Greek Theatre, Comedies, European Classics, American Classics, Adaptations of Novels and New Writing.  This collection would also make an excellent learning resource for theater majors.  Aspiring actors can learn techniques from some of the greatest British and American thespians.  Future members of creative production teams will marvel at the innovative stagecraft and storytelling and can peruse the supplemental behind-the-scenes content such as digitized prompt scripts, costume designs and more available for some performances using this link: https://search.alexanderstreet.com/nath.  Attending live theatre performances is truly a luxury.  COVID-19 has forced theatres in the Kansas City metro area, on Broadway and beyond to go dark.  The price of tickets, transportation and travel can be astronomical.  Watching plays online from home is an excellent way to get your performing arts fix while still staying safe, preserving your budget and snagging prime seats and refreshment.

The National Theatre’s headquarters is in London, England and produces top-notch theatre that is entertaining, challenging and inspiring.  They aim to be open, inclusive, diverse and to reach the widest possible audience.  They stage a broad range of productions in London and tour extensively across the United Kingdom (UK).  They launched National Theatre Live, a ground-breaking project to broadcast performances in cinemas in the UK. and internationally.  Visit their website: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ to read more about their amazing productions, outreach, humanitarian and education efforts. 

Johnson County Library patrons can access U.K. National Theatre Collection for FREE with a library card number and PIN/Password.  We stand by our mission to provide access to ideas, information, experiences and materials to support and enrich your lives.  Don’t have a Johnson County Library card number and PIN/Password? There are two options to sign up.  Residents of Johnson County in Kansas can register for a free eCard to get immediate access to our eLibrary.  Use this link: https://www.jocolibrary.org/using-the-library/getting-started.  Not a Johnson County resident?  Anyone can fill out a paper application for a traditional card at any of our 14 locations for access to our whole collection.  Applications are available on our website or in-person.  Remember to bring photo ID and proof of current address.  Those who registered for an eCard can have it converted into a traditional card with a library staff member at any branch for full privileges.   

I logged in with my library card number and PIN and did a full exploration.  Find it here: https://www.jocolibrary.org/elibrary/streaming-video/uk-national-theatre-collection.  The U.K. National Theatre Collection is both fun and super easy to navigate.  On the home page, you’ll see production photos from each performance.  Select “See Details” on a photo for a quick glimpse.  Once you’ve selected a play, watch it on “Fullscreen” for the best cinematic experience.  The recordings all have the standard media control icons: play and pause, as well as the progress bar to show the runtime and where you left off if you stop before the end.  Select the “CC” icon to turn on or off the closed captions, but there’s another feature that’s more accurate and helpful.  Select “Transcript” and a literal transcript of the play’s dialogue will appear side-by-side with the video.  The character’s names are next to their dialogue and the lines appear in blue as the character speaks.  Select “Details” for information you’d normally see in a playbill, including age recommendation, synopsis, date of recording, cast, creative team (director, etc.), duration, awards, and specialized area of interest.  Select “Share” to share your favorite plays on social media or embed the video in Learning Management Systems or other websites.  Select “Cite” and choose a citation style if you need to cite the play for scholarly purposes.  The video quality is clear, and the close-ups show every detail– from the costumes and sets to the spit projecting from the actors’ mouths.  I’ve watched and reviewed three plays from this collection. 

One Man, Two Guvnors – Royal National Theatre (2011)

In 1963 Brighton, England, Francis Henshall– a recently sacked musician– becomes minder (bodyguard/assistant) for Roscoe Crabbe, a small-time East End criminal who is in town to collect money from the father of his brainless fiancé, Pauline Clench.  But Roscoe is really his twin sister, Rachel, posing as her own dead brother, killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers.  Ensconced at The Cricketer’s Arms pub, the interminable ravenous Francis spots the chance for an extra meal ticket and accepts another job from Stanley, who is hiding from the police and waiting to be reunited with Rachel.  Francis must keep his two guvnors apart and juggle their demands to prevent discovery.  Simple, right?  Everything that can go wrong does in this hilarious comedy of errors directed by Nicholas Hytner.  Adapted by playwright Richard Bean from Carlo Goldoni’s Italian play, “The Servant of Two Masters.”  At the beginning of each scene, a skiffle band called The Craze plays catchy songs on a banjo, guitar and washboard– written by composer Grant Olding– that reflects the upcoming drama, such as “The End of the Pier Blues.”  The sets, props and wardrobe are grand scale, detailed and gorgeous.  The talented actors really brought their exaggerated and vivid characters to life.  James Corden’s Tony Award-winning performance as the opportunistic Francis Henshall is hilarious.  He has excellent timing, interacts with the audience and is a master at slapstick comedy.  Jemima Rooper gives a spirited performance as the clever and resolute Rachel and her bad boy alter ego, Roscoe.  Gender as disguise is one of my favorite literary tropes to promote agency and mayhem and flout societal and gender norms.  Oliver Chris’s Stanley Stubbers is a marvelous, posh oddball with sordid boarding school stories, copious back hair and mad love for Rachel.  In the grand tradition of the farce there’s slamming doors, manic pacing and dialogue, mistaken identities, thwarted love, subterfuge, the convergence of highly-strung personalities and happy endings for all.  The audience’s laughter indicated they were having a good time.  My favorite scene is when Francis serves lunch for his two employers in separate rooms inside The Cricketers Arms.  He runs in and out of their rooms to keep them supplied with food and drink but pilfers most of the grub for himself.  I’d recommend this play for anyone wanting a rollicking good time, enjoys James Corden and wry British humor. 

Small Island – Royal National Theatre (2019)

Small Island is a love letter to the Windrush generation– immigrants who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries.  “Windrush” refers to the ship HMT Empire Windrush which docked in the Port of Tilbury in London on June 22, 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other West Indies islands, to help fill post-WWII labor shortages in the UK.  The ship carried 492 passengers, many of them children.  In Great Britain, June 22 is celebrated as Windrush Day with government funded events, exhibitions and publications.  The citizenship of the original migrants and their descendants has recently been contested.  The play follows the stories of three intricately connected narrators.  Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica to teach in England, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots to marry and start a family.  Hope and humanity meet stubborn reality as the play traces the tangled histories between British colonial Jamaica and the UK through WWII to 1948.  Directed by Rufus Norris, based on the novel of the same name by Andrea Levy and adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson.  The play cleverly switches between the three protagonist’s points-of-view.  Each character introduces themselves with a monologue to share their origins and inner desires.  All the characters leave their homes for a better future, but the results are not what they bargained for.  The play transverses two island countries, so production staff had to illustrate these changes without the benefit of several filming locations.  They met this challenge by using a large stage with a rotating floor and stage lifts to change out the minimal props and some of the actors, creating movement and seamless time lapses.  Archival news footage of 1940s Jamaica, the second world war and various other images are projected on a screen at the back of the stage.  This play has a large ensemble of non-speaking performers to add gravitas to some scenes.  This play addresses timely and controversial issues: racism, xenophobia, immigration, white supremacy, nationalism and PTSD.  The white characters use historically accurate racist slurs that may be offensive for some viewers.  The costumes are stylish and firmly root the audience in the 1940s.  The actors are captivating and really embody their characters.  Aishling Loftus’s Queenie is a plucky and open-minded romantic who works hard to survive the war and her loveless marriage.  Leah Harvey’s Hortense is a well-mannered and snobby spitfire who is determined to move to and prosper in England.  Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s Gilbert is an affable, dignified and ambitious gentleman who longs for equal opportunity and respect.  My favorite scene is when Gilbert boards the Empire Windrush, bound for London.  A sheet is held up to project an image of the real ship and the actors climb stairs behind the sheet to create shadows of embarking passengers.  Hortense, his new wife, watches longingly.  She wants to be on that ship but not until Gilbert can afford her ticket.  The scene closes with news footage of the original Windrush passengers disembarking in London.  This is one of the most stellar productions I’ve seen in years.  It’s stirring, thought-provoking, features a diverse cast, educates the viewer about little-known historical events and guaranteed to simulate conversations about racism and immigration. 

Romeo and Juliet – Royal National Theatre (2017)

We all know and love/hate the tragic Shakespearean play about two star-crossed lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fall in love and want to be together despite their two powerful feuding families in Verona, Italy– a staple of high school English curriculums.  The lovers’ dramatic suicide is the catalyst for their grieving families to make peace.  It was originally staged as part of The National Theatre’s Shakespeare for younger audiences’ program, directed by Bijan Sheibani and adapted by Ben Power.  This contemporary production abridges the play’s five acts into a succinct 1 hour and 7 minutes and features a cast of eight multi-cultural actors.  Nana Amoo-Gottfried is a lovelorn black Romeo and dreamer who sings along to Adele’s “Someone Like You” on his portable CD player.  Sharan Phull is an Indian Juliet who’s perky and conflicted between being an obedient daughter or choosing her own life.  The setting is taken out of 16th century Italy and into a modern and urban world.  This production seems to take place in a black-box or studio theatre.  A group of uniformed British school children sit in chairs around a large black square that serves as the stage.  No curtains, walls or barriers to the actors.  The minimal set is a large black net interwoven with fairy lights suspended from stands with climbing rails.  Vintage cage lantern string lights illuminate the room and speakers surround the perimeter.  The actors are very clever with how they utilize their Spartan set– including scaling the rails for the famous balcony scene.  The dialogue is the same blank verse as the original play, but it’s freshened up with rap and a more conversational tone, so it’s not as stodgy.  The actors sing contemporary songs in between the traditional dialogue.  The costumes are modern, colorful and represent diverse cultures and personalities.  My favorite scene is when Romeo sneaks into the Capulet party where he meets Juliet and they fall in love.  The characters do Bollywood-style dance to instrumental Middle Eastern music as they have a good time.  Rope lights line the stage and balloons are brought in.  The Capulets, including Juliet, wear sparkly saris in autumnal hues and masks.  The street fights between the Capulet and Montague extended relations cleverly include both verbal and dance sparing.  The director did an excellent job of updating this play to make it accessible for young audiences.  The delightful laughter and cheering of the students imply they enjoyed the play.  They were very verbal during the kissing scenes and pleaded with Juliet not to stab herself.  I don’t think anyone read the play beforehand.  I love that a lot of the traditional male roles were cast as woman: Mercutio, Tybalt and Friar Lawrence, for example– a reverse of men playing women’s roles in William Shakespeare’s time.  I highly recommend this play for newbies to Shakespeare, especially young people.  Romeo and Juliet is one of the easiest of the bard’s plays to read and understand when seen in action.  The updated touches and non-traditional casting compliments our modern global worldview and experiences.     

Reviewed by Karyn H
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