NT Live! Frankenstein at King’s College Anatomy Theatre

Last night (17 March 2011) I had the pleasure of attending one of the NT Live events, and a live screening of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. There were several screenings in London, and indeed around the world, but I decided to go for one I felt would be the most suitable location, the Anatomy Theatre at King’s College.

This proved to be a wise decision as it turned out that the evening was not just going to include the screening of the production, but also a talk by Dr Colin Stolkin entitled ‘Neuroscience & the Gothic: Frankenstein Rising’ in the Anatomy Museum with drinks! As you can imagine I was beside myself with excitement!

As it turned out the talk was in more of an empty room than a museum, my imaginings of being surrounded by skeletons and organs in jars had obviously gone too far. Though the talk itself lived up to everything I could have hoped for, putting Mary Shelley’s novel in the context of science history. Dr Stolkin took us on a journey of the late eighteenth century experiments with electricity, introducing us to characters like Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Giovanni Aldini, Alexander von Humboldt and Benjamin Franklin.


Aldini's experiments. Wellcome Library, London

Aldini, it turned out, preformed the most gruesome of the these early experiments with electricity, and some say was the basis of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. These experiments included making the decapitated head of an oxen perform life-like responses, and led to experimenting with the remains of criminals who had been guillotined. In 1803 Aldini came to London and started to perform roadshows demonstrating the wonderous powers of electricity. It was at this time that he preformed his most notorious experiment on the remains of the convicted murder, George Forester, at the Royal College of Surgeons. He applied so much electricity that he was able to not only stimulate the muscles but also made the lungs inflate and simulate the act of breathing. The possibility of bringing the dead back to live seemed more real than ever before.

With tales like these the mood had been suitably set for what was to come. After the talk we refilled our wine and shuffled into the Anatomy Theatre taking our surprising comfortable seats to await the production. It was introduced by a women standing the National Theatre auditorium, and you could tell the free wine was starting to have an effect as, we audience, were far more amused by watching the general public in the background trying to find their seats than we probably should have been.


Image from the National Theatre's Frankenstein from the Frankensteinia Blog

We then watched a ‘Making of’ film, which I enjoyed though I can only recount a couple of pieces of information from it. What I took away was that the Bodleian Library in Oxford paid £3 million to acquire Mary Shelley’s original manuscript, and that influences used by Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in creating their Creature were from recovering stroke patients, victims of war and car accidents, as well as Johnny’s two year old.

Apologies if you’re now hoping for a full review of the production, I’m not going to provide that here as there are many reviews out on the web. Instead I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and did feel it successfully brought out some key themes of the book (if I remember correctly from my English Literature A-Level). I was surprised by the absence of Frankenstein for the first half of the play, though I suppose that was useful in establishing our relationship with and sympathy for the Creature. The music used was very industrial and helped build atmosphere for us watching on a screen. Also I wonder how much Danny Boyle had a hand in the directing of the camera work, as we had the advantage of watching from all angles, seeing the Creature come to live from above as well as the side, and on the whole the camera work worked well. Though there were just a couple of occasions you felt someone had cut to a different camera a bit too soon, but that’s to be expect from live broadcasts.

Secret Cinema event in a Tunnel, WeMadeThis.co.uk

Inevitably watching on screen is not the same at being in the theatre, and I think we principally lost out in the use of lighting and the immersive quality of plays. There were a beautiful collection of bulbs that were used throughout the play, but watching from afar I felt it was impossible to feel the texture or fully appreciate the use of the lighting. It made me jealous, but didn’t prevent me from enjoying and feeling emotionally part of the action in front of me.

Overall I had a great time, and I think NT Live is a great way to bring together the two old enemies of theatre and cinema together, and with this and events like Secret Cinema it is clear there are ways theatre and cinema can work together and complement each other. Though being a history geek it was the offer of the talk before the play, putting the original story in context, that helped create the magical atmosphere that could be lost not sitting in a theatre, I hope I’ve managed to convey that here.

I believe there is another screening on 24 March 2011, and if you can get tickets I would definitely urge you to go.