Thursday, March 17, 2011


This was my first NT Live experience, but a long fascination with all things gothic meant I couldn't resist Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, screened live at Jersey Opera House.

Mary Shelley's novel is a seminal work and the play encapsulates themes which have become mainstream now - the dangers of science, playing God, responsibilities of procreation & parenting, nature vs. nurture, enslavement, disability, social acceptance & exclusion and Christian allegory.  The strength of this production is not in Nick Dear's somewhat pedestrian script however, which seemed to falter under so much symbolism, but in how the themes are given physical embodiment.

In a tour de force visceral opening sequence. the creature (tonight Benedict Cumberbatch, alternating with Jonny Lee Miller's Victor Frankenstein in other performances) breaks out of a womb-like pod and gradually gains control of his body, struggling to raise himself, to walk and make sounds, to eat and drink.  There is a child-like joy as he discovers the world, the heat of the sun, grass, rain, snow and fire.  He will learn to speak, to quote Milton, debate his condition and feel emotions - beautifully expressed in a dream dance with a female creature.

Charles Spencer in the Telegraph described it as "like watching a speeded up version of human evolution" and for me it evoked memories of Dudendance's Spaceman, (performed at St James last year as part of a Jersey Arts Centre residency) as did the play's final exit through an Arctic doorway of light.

The NT Live experience itself is a curious hybrid of theatre and cinema.  The liveness of the event, (broadcast to 400 venues in 22 countries), creates a sense of anticipation and excitement.  There is also a feeling of intimacy, of sharing an event with a particular audience.  One can't fault the camera work either which is excellent - unobtrusive and moving easily from aerial views to close ups and giving access that you wouldn't get in the theatre.

I did miss the freedom you have in the theatre to read visual content and discover meaning, to let your eye frame a scene, rather than a lens do it for you.  The design of the production is beautiful, particularly the large canopy of hanging lights flickering with frissons of galvanic energy - but there's something different about seeing light rather than being in the room with it and experiencing the light and dark yourself.  And although you are with an audience, it is a different audience to the one the actors are in some kind of symbiotic relationship with.  The screen itself acts as a kind of fourth wall.

And I did wonder why the creature was wearing a flesh-coloured loin cloth in the opening birth sequence when reviews and production photographs suggested he would be naked, which would seem more apt - some kind of caution to not offend global sensibilities or invoke cinema censorship restrictions?  Curious...   

But this feeling of being at one remove, of 'secondhandedness', doesn't make the experience not worth having, it just makes it a different experience. And importantly the broadcasts widen access to those who wouldn't be able to make it to the National Theatre in London or to buy a ticket, to a global audience.

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