Over the weekend, I caught two Third Rail-sponsored screenings of National Theatre Live, the program out of London's National Theatre that records theater performances and then rebroadcasts them around the world. A pre-recorded version of a live show sounds hokey (and expensive, at $20 a ticket), until you consider the level of talent the National Theatre attracts: On Saturday afternoon I saw Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock!) and Johnny Lee Miller; on Sunday, the Tony-winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, starring James Cordon (Doctor Who!).
I was quite excited for Frankenstein, being a fan of both Boyle and the consistently great Cumberbatch; but of the two NT shows, Frankenstein was far less suited to being recorded. This show's big hook is that Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles as Victor Frankenstein and his Creature; the script closely focuses on the experiences of the Creature, a sad sack of a monster who wants nothing but companionship and finds nothing but cruelty. The script is great; the problem is that many of the production elements just don't translate well to film. The stage is huge, mostly empty and overhung with a cluster of dozens of bare bulbs—in person, no doubt this conveys a sense of humanity's insignificance in the face of an uncaring universe, or something profound like that. But the effect is lost when someone else is telling you where to look, and I was ultimately just frustrated that someone else was directing my experience—I could rarely see the whole set, and closeups and camera fades were distracting and over-used. The performances were impressive—Johnny Lee Miller is a really good actor!—but the production as a whole felt awkwardly translated, like the best stuff had been left in the theater. If you're a diehard Cumberbatch fan, though, go see it when he's performing the Creature. I saw Miller in the role, and regret it a bit—he was great, but Cumberbatch was basically playing a creepier version of his Sherlock character, and it would've been fun to see him in a five-minute movement-based creation-myth scene instead.
If I was disappointed in Frankenstein, Sunday redeemed the National Theatre Live experience for me: One Man, Two Guvnors is totally hilarious and charming, a character and dialogue-driven show that lends itself much better to film than the more atmospheric Frankenstein. (It also features the most brilliant use of audience participation I've ever seen.) A convoluted farce about a servant-for-hire who tries to hold down jobs with two bosses at the same time, the show hinges on James Cordon's endearingly hard-won performance, plus a few stellar supporting characters. It's damn funny, and dare I say... uplifting? I'd love to one day see this on a Portland stage; the script is pretty close to brilliant.
There are four more National Theater Live performances this weekend, Saturday and Sunday at the World Trade Center Theatre. Go here for details!