National Theatre Live Shocks ‘Frankenstein’ Back to Life

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?

The NTL Cinematic Experience

Because NTL productions are neither live on stage for the audience watching the performance on a cinema screen nor are they canned, edited performance like a movie, they fall into a strange intermediary category. They allow a communal viewing experience within the cinema, but they also create a bond among audiences far different from that of people who go into a theatre anywhere in the world to watch a blockbuster movie. NTL offers exclusivity, most often a one-time-only broadcast, and most audience members cannot attend on a whim, especially if they live far from a venue that carries NTL performances.

The performances cost more ($20 per adult ticket in Daytona Beach or Vero Beach, Florida, and Macon, Georgia). This price is higher than that of a regular movie ticket, yet the venue is not any more “special” than it is for an afternoon matinee. Nevertheless, the communal experience is more exclusive—people gathering on specific dates worldwide to view a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The play cannot be repeated exactly the same way—the performance occurred live on stage, for better or worse. There are no outtakes or retakes of a scene. The excitement of live performance (or live that day, broadcast a few hours later) is likely worth the extra few dollars per ticket for NTL fans.

NTL does have some common ground with movies. Unlike theatergoers, the audience watching in a cinema is at the mercy of the camera’s perspective. Although each seat in a theatre presents a different view of the play, the individual decides where to watch and on what to focus. The nature of broadcasting requires the cinema audience to rely on the camera’s viewpoint, making the NTL viewpoint largely the same for everyone in the audience. Fortunately, Frankenstein was captured from a variety of camera angles. When the bell tolls the beginning of the play, the camera tilts upward from the first rows to show the bell as well as bell ringer. The lightning bolt of creation flashes across stage, and NTL audiences see the vast illumination of light bulbs near the ceiling. Close-ups of the actors’ faces provide a view that would be hard to match from even the front row of theatre seats, yet the camera also pulls back to show a full-stage confrontation between Victor and his Creature. In short, Frankenstein’s camera work provides a variety of perspectives that would be otherwise unattainable, even from the best seat in the house.

Not Your Parents’ Movie House, Either: Infusing New Life into Cinemas

Cinemas in the Southeastern US vary in their approach to showing NTL events. In Daytona Beach, Florida, better known for NASCAR races, bike weeks, and beaches than National Theatre, NTL is but one of the many special events offered to vacationers and locals at RC Theatres’ Ocean Walk Cinemas. Opera is a big draw, and a local opera club comes out for regularly scheduled broadcasts, as well as opts for a trip to New York each year to see opera up close and personal. A few hours’ drive down the coast, Cinemaworld’s Majestic cinema in Vero Beach advertised more NTL screenings—at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on March 17 and 31, reflecting local interest in independent film and special theatrical events and an audience who can attend matinees on Thursdays. In Macon, GA, the restored Douglass Theatre usually screens independent films hosted by the cinematic society, as well as events touting music and dance. NTL is another one of the arts attractions on its schedule. Whatever the venue, NTL provides a service to local communities and keeps alive the desire to see live performance, even one broadcast from thousands of miles away.

David Phillips, CFO/COO of RC Theatres, a chain of high-quality cinemas in Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, began offering special events with the Met’s opera performances, later expanding into NCM Fathom events, such as concerts and one-night-only special film screenings. He next was asked to include National Theatre Live productions as well. The popularity of these special events has varied, with opera being the most popular.

Phillips believes that NTL productions’ “popularity will grow and, of course, in the long run it will be the public that decides what we present. As to whether the National Theater series will be successful, I just don’t know. Will enough Americans embrace the London performances? They will soon have competition from domestic offers. For example, we will be presenting the Broadway performance of Memphis on April 28 and May 1.”

Although NTL may not specifically benefit from the competition, audiences will benefit from the increased accessibility of theatrical performances, whether from the West End or Broadway. An expanding choice among types of performances gives more people who will never fly to London or New York the chance to see original casts in a variety of productions. Whereas touring companies lean more heavily toward high-profile musicals that appeal to a wide potential audience, NTL performances—such as Frankenstein—also expand audiences’ exposure to avant garde staging and a new take on classic stories.

Heading to the local cinema may be easier and closer for people who might not be near a theatre hosting a touring production. Although the “evening out” experience of a night at the opera, or the exclusivity of attending a Broadway play, may be increasingly reserved for dedicated theatre-lovers or those living close enough to enjoy live performance actually live on stage in front of them, cinema-based theatrical experiences may keep theatre alive in the minds and wallets of the masses who live far away from metropolitan theatre.

According to Phillips, in the future “you will see more and more alternative content in movie theatres. The alternative content gives us the ability to connect with our existing customer base, as well as folks that haven’t been to the movies lately, on another level. Not only does presenting alternative content generate revenue, they also promote the theatre in general. There is not much risk on the theatre’s side of these events in as it’s pretty much a percentage deal. Of course, we don’t want to present events that draw only a handful of people.”

Marketing efforts to ensure that the likely ticket buyers know about upcoming events are part of Kim Ellis’ job. She works with special promotions in Daytona Beach for the Ocean Walk Cinemas. Although Ellis admits she is biased as an NTL fan, she has been aware of the local buzz about Frankenstein, which has centered around Danny Boyle’s return to directing on the stage after his recent film successes. Ellis notes that “arguably, Slumdog Millionaire is his biggest commercial success, and I think the audience is interested to see how his talent directly translates from the screen to the stage.”

Unlike other NTL venues, Daytona’s Ocean Walk is located on the beach and attracts a larger tourist crowd. Ellis explains that the formula for success here is a bit different: “While the buzz is certainly high interest, that doesn’t always translate into ticket presales. Because our location is on the beach and we cater to tourist traffic, we see more box office sales the day of the event than most other theatres located in the suburbs.”

To get out the word, Ellis uses a combination of signage, website promotion, and email blasts. The cinema also works closely with a nearby performing arts center, whose patrons likely will be interested in special events shown on movie screens. Ellis explains that “because of the natural tie-in of fans of live theatre and the arts, we partner with the Peabody Performing Arts Center to help promote these types of events. Also, we have an email list of about 65,000.” She added that “Of course, we never shy away from any opportunity for grassroots campaigning at local events, with the diversity in this market. You never know what title is going to attract an audience.” Some crossover events such as a pre-show wine tasting for opera fans may not be part of traditional marketing, but, as Ellis adds, their approach “has kept our special events audience coming back for every performance.”

As with all productions, if the theatre-going public wants to be able to see firsthand what all the buzz about a Frankenstein is like, they need to support the venues carrying NTL and similar performances. As well, cinemas need to explore new options, such as NTL, as ways to attract new audiences and retain moviegoers. A healthy theatre needs the support of a healthy theatre culture, whether in London or Daytona Beach, Florida. Boyle and Dear may have jolted Frankenstein back to life this year, but it’s up to audiences to keep NTL events alive.