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National Theatre boss warns of devastation as he signs up Helen Mirren for quiz

Dame Helen Mirren will ask the quiz questions (Matt Crossick/PA)
Dame Helen Mirren will ask the quiz questions (Matt Crossick/PA)

The director of the National Theatre has warned the industry faces “devastation” from the coronavirus pandemic – as he signed up Dame Helen Mirren to help it through the crisis.

The Oscar-winning actress, 74, will appear as a quizmaster in a virtual quiz, part of plans to raise money for the theatre and “buy time” against an uncertain future.

The theatre also announced that Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating in the roles of Frankenstein and his creation, will air next on its YouTube channel.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein (Catherine Ashmore/PA)

While the National Theatre (NT) has raised more than £100,000 in donations so far after streaming live recordings of its productions, its director Rufus Norris told the PA news agency it was “haemorrhaging” money.

He said the arts face an uncertain future.

“It’s a massive part of being human and our national culture and it is very much under threat at the moment,” he said of the arts.

“What most theatres and arts organisations are up against at the moment is a ticking clock and anything that buys us more time is incredibly welcome,” he said of donations.

Antony And Cleopatra, starring Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes, will be shown as part of the National Theatre’s digital programme (Jason Bell/National Theatre/PA)

But he said Government support would be needed.

“The term ‘devastation’ is a big term but, if we’re not careful and we don’t get supported through it (by the Government), it’s (the pandemic) likely to be devastating for this industry and consequently for the arts in the UK.”

The NT is looking at all eventualities once restrictions are lifted, including audience members having to keep their distance from each other.

“There’s no saying what people are going to be feeling like … whenever it is when we can go back,” he said. “We are considering everything.”

And he added: “If we could all go back to our theatres tomorrow I think almost all of us would get through it, albeit in a depleted way.

“But we are not going back tomorrow and we don’t know when we are.”

The National Theatre’s director, Rufus Norris (Paul Plews/PA)

Mr Norris told PA that “the arts has a huge role to play in terms of giving people some respite, some relief, some balm from their stresses” and for making “sense of the world”.

Frankenstein is being screened after the move to put productions on YouTube was a huge success.

One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Corden, notched up 2.6 million views overall.

Both versions of Frankenstein, filmed at the theatre in 2011, will air on April 30 and May 1, so fans can choose whether they want to see Cumberbatch or Lee Miller play the monster.

The sell-out production of Antony And Cleopatra, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo playing the leads, will be streamed on May 7.

And on the final Monday of each month, fans will be able join a virtual quiz from their homes.

Oscar-winner Dame Helen has signed up as quizmaster for the first event on April 27, alongside Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Lenny Henry and Lesley Manville.

The stars will ask pre-recorded questions on history, sport, nature and on the National Theatre itself, with people able to take part from home.

Norris said he is receiving calls from big-name stars who want to help in the crisis.

He said of the National Theatre At Home quiz: “I love actors and of course most of them are unemployed at the moment. But it doesn’t matter how famous they get, they just are up for it.”

Of Dame Helen as quizmaster, he added: “I imagine she’s quite strict!”

Frankenstein and Antony And Cleopatra will be free and screened live at 7pm on their air dates and then available on demand for seven days. The virtual quiz takes place on the final Monday of each month, with people able to join via the NT’s YouTube channel and Facebook page live at 7pm. Information is at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/at-home

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