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I just got back from seeing the acclaimed production of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. However not only was the production at the London National Theater, but it closed more than a year ago. This was a part of National Theater Live Initiative, a program that broadcasts outstanding theatrical productions in movie theaters all across the world. I’m not going to talk about Frankenstein (though feel free to send me an email if you want to know my thoughts), but about the notion of these limited edition theater screenings. This isn’t anything new; I myself saw the New York Philharmonic presentation of ‘Company’ when it was in theaters. In recent years, programs like Fathom Events have been screening theater in cinemas and, in concept, it’s a pretty cool idea. However there were a lot of problems I faced when trying to sit back and enjoy the show.
One major problem is how limited these screenings are; more often than not, they play for just one day. This screening was completely sold out with tickets being sold as early as March. I was lucky to get in – this show was sold out and I managed to pick up someone’s unclaimed ticket. There was also something weird about the stage acting. The National Theatre is a VERY big theater and what works for the back of the house there doesn’t always work for close-ups on the big screen. The quality of the audio also was a bit lacking, for the nearly double cost of admission you think the recording would have had crisper sound. What still translated well was the crazy and majestic scenery; even in a recording, the giant rising and falling platforms were still something to be admired. There wasn’t an intermission (I miss film intermissions, can we bring those back?) and there was applause at the end but with a hint of awkwardness permeating the room (“Yeah we’re clapping… but should we? They can’t hear us.”). There wasn’t really that much of a difference between watching a live theater show and watching a movie except for the audience. Everyone, and I meant everyone, seemed to be a die-hard fan of “Sherlock”, which Cumberbatch is the star of. It was fun hearing everyone enter into a dialog about it the second after bows.
Overall, limited engagement screenings don’t quite work for me. Only big productions would have a hope of translating well like musicals or operas (Frankenstein was very operatic in tone, so it had plenty of spectacle). I still think productions should be preserved, but seeing with an audience in a theater doesn’t come close to seeing it with and audience live. Wait until the show is on iTunes or DVD. If you are a fan of opera, I recommend checking out the Metropolitan Opera’s online MetViewer – it’s got a great selection of productions.
Frankenstein comes back for a screening at the Coolidge Corner Theater on Monday the 25th.