Have You Seen This? National Theatre Live

Part of working in theatre is seeing shows.  Ordinarily, for those of us at Undermain, that means seeking out our friends’ work all around Dallas and Forth Worth, but the digital age has brought with it new opportunities for theatre going that extend beyond reasonable borders of geography.  Witness National Theatre Live, an offering from London’s Royal National Theatre.  Since 2009, the National has broadcast live, multi-camera video of select productions to movie theaters around the world.
 In Dallas, the Angelika Film Center hosts National Theatre Live screenings.  So that’s where I was last Thursday evening, to see an encore presentation of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.  Several of my co-workers – including Directing Associate Dylan Key and Designer Jeffrey Franks – had previously attended NT Live events and had raved about the quality of the experience (and the quality of the shows on display).
This Frankenstein, for those who don’t know, is drawn from a new adaptation by Nick Dear, and was most noted during its run for its two lead actors – Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – alternating the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature.  I chose to attend Thursday’s screening because, as a fan of his work on the BBC Sherlock, I was eager to see how Cumberbatch would handle the Creature.  Judging by the density of young women in the theatre, it seems I was not alone on that front.
Frankenstein opens with a frankly stunning, uninterrupted sequence of birth and physical development.  On a nearly-bare stage, the Creature pulses against the yielding walls of an egg-like sac.  Finally he tumbles out, grunting, whinnying, shying from the massive array of hanging lights, which burst in the blinding glow of a starfield pressed too close to Earth.  I don’t wear a watch, but I’d be willing to wager that a full five minutes passed as the Creature taught himself first to crawl, then to stand, and finally to walk upright, striding around the circular stage, giddy with pride and humanity.  Cumberbatch’s work in this sequence is astonishingly physical – so much so that an acquaintance wondered at his sheer endurance and lack of bruises.  At times the sequence resembles nothing so much as dance.  The vulnerability of the Creature, the miracle of birth and corporal existence, the incomprehensibility of fear and pain, and finally the ravenous, earthy hunger that sits in the center of all life – all of these are etched finely into this opening scene.
Unfortunately all that brilliant work makes a promise that the rest of the production is rarely able to keep.  Rather than air my grievances with the majority of the play and production, however, I’ll remain here a while at the start of the show and tell you what’s so great about the NT Live experience.
The action described above is captured by, it appeared to me, at least four cameras Cursory research informs me they have up to eight high-def cameras available, so I obviously missed a couple.  I’ll attempt to lay out what they’re working with, but bear in mind I only saw the show once (and was focused mainly on the play, rather than the filming).
-Two of the angles seemed to be traditional, fixed wide shots: if you’ve ever watched a “filmed” production, this is the angle you’re used to, and while it’s perfectly nice if you just want to “see what the play looked like”, it’s got about as much life in it as a closed-circuit security feed.  NT Live does have a slight step up, in that the camera director can choose to put cameras anywhere in the house, so these wide shots aren’t necessarily from the back of the stalls, know what I mean?  Also, I use “fixed” loosely, because there’s definitely an op on one of those positions who is able to pan, tilt, zoom, and focus.
-One camera, used to fantastic effect right at the start, flies over the stage and audience.  I think they’ve got this one on what must be a very expensive crane rig.  Either that or they’ve got it on an even more expensive wire system like the NFL uses to zip out over the action.  I’m guessing crane.  Anyway, this bad boy can give you angles not even available to the audience.  Cutting to it tends to goose a viewer’s sense of the stage image as image – it’s an exciting, blatantly cinematic perspective.  In the birth/development sequence, shots from this camera helped to build tension when placed against the traditional house shots and the close-ups.  (On the prosaic side, the high-angle helps cover transitions: revolves are more fun to watch from above).
-Another extraordinary angle comes from (it seems) just at the lip of the stage.  This camera is mounted on a track that spans the entire length of the playing area, and it goes careening after actors as they make dramatic horizontal crosses.  In tandem with the crane-cam, this camera does a beautiful job of capturing the Creature’s eager first steps.  Just imagine the difference: the Creature lurches and bounds forward, a cross between a toddler and a wild animal, and you’re watching
a.) a distant, static image
b.) a nearer image that pans to keep the Creature in frame
c.) an even nearer image (still a wide shot revealing the actor’s entire body) that sweeps right alongside the actor, chasing each one of his steps across the stage.
I refuse to accept the “puts you right there” ad-speech this sort of arrangement is sold with: let’s not kid ourselves that even a good broadcast is anything like actually being at a live performance.  However, NT Live’s array of angles, crisp image, and intelligent editing absolutely give you the next best thing.  I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to see just the first ten minutes of Frankenstein – ten beautiful minutes that even four years ago would have been available only to London theatergoers and confined to the imagination for the rest of us.
-Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager