Screening London plays in Bulgaria has proved a hit

I used to love going to the theatre in London. Admittedly that was back in the 1980s and early 1990s when a visit to the West End didn’t seem to cost you several days’ salary.

Here in Sofia, when people asked me what I miss the most about London, I always used to say ‘bookshops and the theatre’. Well, the virtual bookstore has been brought to our door.

The theatre was, until recently, a more difficult problem. But now, thanks to the screening of several National Theatre Live plays in Sofia cinemas, it’s like being back in the West End again. Recent productions have included Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch and The Audience with Helen Mirren as the Queen (or should that be the Queen as Helen Mirren?) which focused on her weekly meetings with British prime ministers.

To judge from the packed auditoriums, these shows are very popular.  After The Audience, for example, I was surprised by the number of young Bulgarians attending. When they found out I was British they asked me about Harold Wilson, in particularly his founding of the Open University. That’s how a play can trigger interest in a politician who’s been dead for 20 years.

Most young Bulgarians can probably understand English. But these plays come with subtitles in case of problems. Sometimes, of course, there’s an element of ‘lost in translation’. I was reminded of this when I heard the expression ‘I was as poor as Job’s turkey’ during last night’s screening of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two Audiences

It’s a strange experience at first. There are two audiences, one in the real theatre that you see on the screen, milling about during the interval. And then there’s the audience in the Sofia cinema. But, once you get over that, it’s pretty much the real McCoy; you’re watching a recording of a play with all the tension of live theatre.

Sienna Miller played Maggie and succeeded in looking almost as luscious as Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film. (I am lucky enough also to have seen Kathleen Turner as Maggie on Broadway in 1990 with Charles Durning as Big Daddy.) Miller succeeded in conveying Maggie’s sensuality and pitiable craving for ‘affection’. No longer can she ever be dismissed – if she ever was – as a screen bimbo. Although Maggie’s initial diatribes came across as a bit screechy, Miller and Colm Meaney, as Big Daddy, were the real stars of this one.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a three-hour relentless assault on the senses. Perhaps the claustrophobia of all the action taking place in one set made it feel all the more like a battering ram. (A film, by contrast, can shift location a bit.) But most of it worked very well. One slight quibble: I noticed that they introduced mobile phones into the play. If this implied that the action was set in the present, then Big Daddy’s anecdotes about the presence of beggars in Barcelona are anachronistic.

But on the whole, excellent, and who’s complaining about 15 leva (7 pounds) for the London theatre to be brought to one’s door?