Last Thursday I watched an NTLive! almost-live simulcast at my local Cameo Cinema, of Frankenstein, London’s hottest sold out ticket, directed by Danny Boyle (to see it in London, I’d have to queue for a day ticket -from 1am, when the queue starts forming!).
The production was mesmerising, engaging, gripping and yes, it was live theatre on stage, with its sweat, spits, and occasional trips and stammers, recorded for digital distribution. Except, this time, it wasn’t quite live.
The show has a unique concept in that Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller turn about, every performance, between the roles of Frankenstein and The Creature. The first NTLive! production of Frankenstein was on 17th March: Johnny Lee-Miller was Frankenstein. Later that day, they filmed the turn-about production with Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein, which was simulcast a week later in cinemas. Why didn’t they wait a week to simulcast the Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein? Well, as with all theatre, the performance is unique every day, and the actors react to each other. So Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein in the evening show will have been influenced by his experience of the earlier show. So the filming on the same day enabled the cinema audience to see nuances of facial and body tics that the two actors have developed as both characters – bizarrely manifesting in both characters – intensifying the sense the audience experiences of not knowing who is the man and who is the monster. There were some camera shots that gave us unique experience of the lighting design and the set that those in the theatre would not have seen. In the bridal chamber scene, an overhead shot gave us a birds-eye view of the bride of Frankenstein that no audience member would have experienced. Presumably, the same-day filming saved film crew, cast and crew costs as well.
That the show wasn’t live didn’t matter at all in the cinema. The sold-out audience watched another brilliant NT innovation as they settled in their seats and got cokes/wine/crisps/sweets ready – trailers to live and simulcast upcoming shows, and trailers advertising the digital programme (£3). Emma Freud then did a talking head to camera in the empty NT auditorium, explaining the show’s set up, and setting our expectations about there being no interval and a short documentary introducing the show. At the end, the cinema audience clapped the bows, despite them not being live. It didn’t matter – the clapping was for us in the room, a physical expression of our impression of the show.
The Royal National Theatre have certainly increased the reach and scale of their latest show beyond their own walls, as well as improving accessibility to it – physically and socially. Almost live and live, filmed theatre can be inspiring if the content is handled optimally for screen, the context is set (Emma Freud does this), and the community engages (the community was the cinema audience, clapping together). The digital programme gives you access after the event to production images, videos, articles, all exclusive content. Click to download an example from previous NT Live! production of London Assurance.