National Theatre Live Shocks 'Frankenstein' Back to Life

Why did you create me? The plaintive question adorning National Theatre Live posters may echo critics’ question about the need for yet another in a long line of Frankensteins. Previous Frankensteins and monsters have been entertaining but less socially relevant. The National Theatre’s production, as directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, to use a cliché, is Alive!

127 Hours director Danny Boyles’ latest foray into art takes him to the London stage, where Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein is the ticket to have this theatre season. Although critics attending preview performances in February found a few faults with the story and the supporting cast, they generally praised the idea of this Frankenstein. Audiences and critics alike have become enthralled with the riveting performances of stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Frankenstein’s new home in the National Theatre and popular media makes it an exciting, if somewhat risky choice to be broadcast worldwide as part of National Theatre Live. By unleashing Frankenstein on the global village, NTL comes of age and makes live-theatre-in-the-cinema a must-see event.

Why did you create me? The plaintive question adorning National Theatre Live posters may echo critics’ question about the need for yet another in a long line of Frankensteins. Previous Frankensteins and monsters have been entertaining but less socially relevant. The National Theatre’s production, to use a cliché, is Alive! The new adaptation makes Victor Frankenstein as much if not more of a monster than his creation; it raises still-controversial questions about the social responsibilities or moral boundaries involved with advances in science and technology. Social relevance aside, no matter whether Cumberbatch or Lee Miller portrays the Creature, he is wondrous to behold.

The Creature emerges from a pulsing, womb-like encasement to be born on stage as a fully grown infant who silently, solitarily learns about the world, a scene that provides enough reason to see this production. The opening scene is both an actor’s dream and nightmare. It allows the actor playing the Creature to create a unique theatrical experience. He illustrates only with physical movement what it is to first experience life and become self-aware. The extremely powerful yet vulnerable artistic creations rendered by Cumberbatch and Lee Miller are the very heart of dynamic theatre.

Some people don’t like the play’s lengthy first scene. After all, it requires the actor to be nude on stage and the focus of everyone’s attention. (In the NTL performance, the Creature is clothed in a skillfully camouflaged loin cloth.) During his first minutes on stage, the actor brandishes his body as a physical weapon of the soul. Undoubtedly, the actors end up bruised, performance after performance. Suffering for one’s art has never been more mesmerizing to an audience.

Frankenstein is raw, powerful theatre. These actors remind audiences that the whole body must be involved in the creation of a character. As important as dialogue can be, the symbolic language of each pause, expression, or gesture can create revealingly intimate and memorable moments during the performance.

Frankenstein’s Risky Business

Theatre should involve risk, and Frankenstein is a risky proposition in many ways. It doesn’t always succeed theatrically, as some critics have claimed in the media, or it succeeds for different reasons than Dear’s script, Underworld’s score, Boyles’ direction, or Cumberbatch’s and Lee Miller’s performances. The leads alternate playing Creator and Creature, a ploy that could attract theatergoers who want to see each actor playing both roles. However, it also could leave the audience feeling dissatisfied or cheated if they only have the opportunity (or cash) to see one actor play only one role. Some ticket buyers may be less interested in Frankenstein than in Cumberbatch’s recent popularity as Sherlock or Boyles’ Academy Award nomination for 127 Hours or his previous win for Slumdog Millionaire. Some visitors may be titillated by a nude scene, with others turned off by it. Some simply like National Theatre performances or prefer to rely on their own rather than the critics’ mixed bag of reviews.

Fortunately for this play, the risks paid off. Whatever their reason, audiences immediately sold out tickets to Frankenstein, an especially notable feat during economically difficult times. Day seats have been such a hot commodity that hopeful fans line up in the wee hours of the morning to wait for the box office to open. The play has garnered dozens of online interviews and reviews in publications around the world. It has generated interest not only in London or the U.K. but in dozens of cities internationally that planned to show one or both National Theatre Live performances (streamed on March 17 and 24 but shown on different dates internationally).

Frankenstein goes beyond doing the minimum of what theatre must do in order to survive. Instead, it gets people talking/criticizing/praising/questioning what is being shown on stage. It brings audiences back into the theatre to see for themselves—or to see again. It makes theatre interesting, exciting, different, and possibly controversial.

The Opportunity to Explore Theatre Far From the Stage: National Theatre Live

National Theatre Live has benefited from the buzz. Simply because Cumberbatch is one of the play’s leads, his American TV fans are driving long distances to be in a theatre participating in this NTL event. Those fans who watched the performance on March 17 in one theatre might have to travel to another location for the second broadcast on March 24 (or later, depending on a venue’s schedule). Fan sites and forums share meet-up notices so that a group can discuss their favored actor and his performance. Those lucky enough to have seen the play in London or, better yet, to have met Lee Miller, Cumberbatch, or Boyle outside the stage door, share their photos and comments online. (The consensus: All three have been kind to fans and, as far as their schedules and health allowed, genially accommodating to autograph seekers and well wishers.)

Frankenstein has made NTL tickets in demand in and out of the U.K. Although special events broadcast to cinematic theatres, such as the Metropolitan Opera performances or concerts, have attracted niche crowds, Frankenstein appeals to a wider audience. For fans of NTL, whose next event is The Cherry Orchard on June 30, it is yet another opportunity to savor the London stage without the expense and time commitment of visiting the city.

NTL makes theatre affordable and available to those who live far from professional theatre; it provides a unique way to experience live performance taking place miles away. It also may be the only way for most people to see these actors’ performances in this production, because the National Theatre has no plans to produce a Frankenstein DVD.

Frankenstein fans can purchase other play-related items, however, even if they live far from the theatre. Underworld created the music for the play. In email promotion to fans and on their website, they describe their CD or MP3 download of Frankenstein music as illustrative of the show’s concept and mood: “The idea was to create a memento of the show—a postcard, a short story, a collection of scenes and themes—rather than a full-blown soundtrack album. The end result is a 40-something minute journey into and through the world of the Victor Frankenstein and his Creature.” Underworld’s soundtrack was released through the band’s website on March 17 as a download (coinciding with the first NTL broadcast), with CDs to be mailed to buyers later in March. The CD also is available through the National Theatre bookshop online. In addition, the National Theatre sells Frankenstein posters and programs, which can be ordered online for £25 (approximately $40) and £3 (approximately $5), respectively. A digital program can be downloaded for the same price as the paper version.

Once the play’s limited run ends in a few weeks, these performances will belong only to memory. For possible NTL ticket buyers, that’s one more reason to see the play while they can, however they can. But can the NTL experience duplicate that of audiences actually watching the actors only a few feet away? Is NTL better than watching a film at the local cinema?

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