Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

A repost from my old blog in honour of the news that this screening is getting another outing this summer! Yay!

I just got back from a live cinema broadcast of Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, which has been playing to sold out seats at the National Theatre of London. Here is my review of that experience.

First, let me say that the National Theatre's experiment in the exciting new concept of broadcasting their plays live is admirable, and should absolutely be continued in later seasons.

However, though this show may be getting a sold out house in London, going by the nearly empty cinema I attended, there seems to be little or no attempt to advertise these events to movie-goers beyond a poster tucked away here and there in the movie theatre. It's a real pity; an effort needs to be made to bring more people in to a special event like this one.

The nearly empty house did not detract from my enjoyment of the play, though. Not one bit.

It started with a short film about the thought and sentiment put into this particular adaptation, which was enjoyable in itself. It was certainly interesting to see the themes they decided to emphasize from within this massive work. And I literally got shivers up my spine when they pulled out the very first manuscript of Wollstonecroft Shelley's masterwork.

After the film ended, the actual play started. The stage was a circular one, not quite in the round, almost a thrust stage. At some points in the show there was a catwalk that went into the audience. There was a honeycomb of electrical lights hovering above the stage, and at this point they gently lit a crudely fashioned egg, where the Creature incubated.

In this broadcast, the Creature was played by Jonny Lee Miller, a Danny Boyle alumnus who is probably best known for his Jane Austen flicks and Trainspotting. I say 'in this broadcast' because the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature are shared by Mr. Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, who therefore played the doctor in this performance.

Though I am sure they are both equally sublime in each role, I truly cannot imagine a better Creature than Jonny Lee Miller nor a better Frankenstein than Benedict Cumberbatch. Mr. Miller brought a humanity and a childish desperation to learn to the exquisitely written role of the Creature, and Mr. Cumberbatch, though he obviously played off his Sherlock persona, was full of clinical revulsion and all matter of paradoxes as Frankenstein. And when they were together, they seemed to illuminate the stage more than all of those lightbulbs above them.

The rest of the cast worked together, as finely oiled as the steam engine made of metal and man that rolls onto the stage very soon into the show. Naomie Harris of28 Days Later was a beautiful and strong-willed Elizabeth; one could sense the frustration and pain of being shown up constantly by her cold fiance. All of the other supporting roles were cast splendidly, with the exception of the actor playing Frankenstein's father; I felt as though his acting style did not fit in with the more understated aesthetic of the play.

The score was by the electronic group Underworld, and was extremely good without overtaking the play. I do want a soundtrack, so if there are any plans for releasing one, I would very much like to know. Danny Boyle seems to have all the luck when it comes to his work being scored.

The staging was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. It was minimalist without being spare, and managed some of that semi-operatic spectacle that most shows in London revel in without being insufferable. Yes, there was a revolving stage, but the bombast of Les Miserables was absent, replaced by a churning sensation of change and restlessness that does not even resolve itself by the end of the piece.

Kudos too, must be given to the people who worked on the movement of the actors. From the action of the ensemble to the breathless, wordless, first struggles of the newborn Creature, everything here is organic and very believable.

As for seeing a live play in a movie theatre as opposed to its actual location, I could see some definite pros and cons:

  • Different angles and shots, including ones from above.
  • Better and more consistent sound
  • Close-ups! You've got the best seat in the house, and you're an ocean away!
  • You can eat popcorn and you won't be escorted out of the theatre.
  • You don't have to dress nice

  • Connection to the action is lost when one is completely removed from the location
  • Any immersive effects that the director has intended are lost
  • Lack of freedom to look at what you want to; with a broadcast it is predestined as to what you are going to see than in a theatre, where you can be absorbed by trifling details in the background.
  • If people are talking or chewing loudly, nobody will escort them out.
All in all, I think there are very compelling reasons to attend these showings, especially when plane tickets to London aren't readily available at a moment's whim, but at the same time it's good to balance this out with performances within a true theatre.

This was an incredibly positive experience, however, and one that more people should be exposed to. If there is someone in your life who hasn't had a lot of time or money to go to a play, musical, or opera, this is certainly a welcome and convenient alternative.

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