Last night I saw an NT Live screening of Frankenstein (performed in 2011) directed by Danny Boyle and with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Johnny Lee Miller as the Doctor. It was a great production and I feel privileged to have been able to see it two years after the original performance, and in Brighton.
This is the second NT Live screening I’ve seen, and I know they are hugely popular almost always selling out at Brighton’s Duke of Yorks cinema. As I sat listening to the audience members chatting about what previous NT Live screenings they’d seen and what was coming up in the future I started to wonder if they were now going to the theatre more as well? Do the NT Live screenings encourage more people to go to the theatre?
My suspicion is that no, they don’t and discussing this later solidified my opinion. What these screenings certainly do is broaden the audience for any National Theatre production, these performances get screened all over the country and years after the performance run has ended. This means we have access to so much more theatre than we may ever have done before. If I was a theatre-loving teenager living in Shrewsbury (my home town) now I’d have access to astonishing work such as Frankenstein without having to do the long and expensive journey to London. NT Live is a great initiative and a wonderful for thing for theatre.
Is it, though, the same as going to theatre? Well of course it isn’t, quite simply you’re inhabiting a different space. You aren’t in the theatre auditorium, you’re in the cinema and this has a deeper effect than you might at first think. For me I believe watching Cumberbatch’s fantastically physical performance as the Creature from the stalls in the Oliver auditorium would be the best way to experience this production. The cinema screening is just a good second best. The liveness of theatre clinches it every time; I find seeing a performer physically exert themselves and transform themselves right in front of me, inhabiting the same space and breathing the same air as me absolutely astounding. Plus theatre is a sensory medium – Boyle’s production made great use of a hanging array of lightbulbs that flashed uncomfortably brightly at moments in the play. Although the intended effect of this was still evident in the cinema, it would have been far more blinding and hard to endure in the theatre.
Now, I went to this production with my boyfriend who is a filmmaker and so was watching this from a primarily cinema-going background. He enjoyed the close-ups allowed by this filmed experience, the direction of gaze and the offering of angles you would not otherwise see in the theatre. I countered this with the fact that this way of viewing theatre means your gaze is far more controlled than it would be in the theatre itself. What our discussion led us to is the idea that such cinema broadcasts of theatrical performances are creating a new medium, something we could term ‘cine-theatre’. It means theatre is embracing new mediums, developing with its audiences; this ‘cine-theatre’ is certainly no bad thing, but of course we do lose out on the liveness. Where, I wonder, can this form go next?