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'National Theatre Live' Brings Theatre To Your Local Cinema

Benjamin Noble |
November 11, 2014 | 12:51 p.m. PST


National Theatre Live Logo. (@ntlive/Twitter)
National Theatre Live Logo. (@ntlive/Twitter)
Going to see a play can be difficult sometimes, especially if that play is being performed in a different city, state or even country. It is no surprise, then, that going to see a play in London’s West End requires a great deal of planning ahead. The tragedy is that though there are great plays being performed all over the globe, it is unlikely that most people will ever get the chance to see them. However, there is a fantastic organization that provides everyone within the distance of a movie theater a quick and simple way to see these incredible productions.

National Theatre Live offers a unique experience, streaming live performances of plays from the UK to all over the world. Since its start in 2009 at London’s National Theatre, National Theatre Live has now spread to streaming not only plays from the UK, but also Broadway productions.

Every production streamed by NT Live is always fantastic, never ceasing to amaze anyone who has the pleasure of seeing it. In my experience, I have seen many notable productions including: "One Man, Two Guvnors" (starring James Cordens in his Tony Award winning performance as Francis Henshall), "Collaborators" (starring Simon Russell Beale as Joseph Stalin and Alex Jennings as Bulgakov), "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" (starring Luke Treadway as Christopher Boone), "The Last of the Hausmann’s" (starring Helen Mirren, Rory Kenner, and Julie Walters), "People" (starring Frances de la Tour), "The Audience" (starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II), "Macbeth" (starring and co-directed by Kenneth Branagh), and "King Lear" (starring Simon Russell Beale in the title role). Each has been absolutely incredible, from the skill of the actors to the quality of the production design.

Of the most recent and ground breaking plays, three productions are currently being streamed that deserve a great recommendation: "Medea" (starring Helen Mirren in the title role), "Skylight" (starring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan), and "Frankenstein" (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller).


Originally written by Euripedes, "Medea" has been adapted by playwright Ben Power into a very modern version of the famous tragedy. The play surrounds Medea, formerly the wife of the hero Jason, who has attained the golden fleece and subsequently, fame. Unfortunately, Jason has left Medea and their two sons in favor of taking another bride. Determined to exact revenge on Jason, Medea sets out to destroy his heart.

Helen McCrory as Medea. (Richard Hubert Smith)
Helen McCrory as Medea. (Richard Hubert Smith)
Upon first view of the stage, the audience is brought into a crumbling world…literally. The stage is set in an almost dreamlike way, connecting the interior of a house to a forest behind it (designed by Tom Scutt). Yet, the main platform from where the character’s speak, the house, shows a modern setting that is on the verge of collapse.

The characters are superbly played with the Nurse (Michaela Coel) and Jason (Danny Sapani) standing out. Michaela Coel serves as the Narrator, revealing exposition to the audience in a very emotive way, while Danny Sapani as Jason forces us to constantly switch views on whether Jason is truly the antagonist of the play.

Still, it is impossible to discuss the portrayals of characters without citing Helen McRory’s groundbreaking performance. She truly shows Medea’s versatility, from her raging cries of anguish and destruction to her motherly instinct. Whenever she is present, the audience is tense. Whenever, she is not, the audience is tenser still.

Of course the atmosphere, while aided by the production design and the skill of the actors, would not be as effective if not for the music (written by Will Gregory & Alison Goldfrapp). The music moves the play forward, constantly reminding the audience of the tension that exists onstage, while also serving as a method for transition between scenes. This incredibly evocative addition is so riveting that the audience is never given a chance to relax.

Coinciding with the music, the amazing choreography (Lucy Guerin) of the Chorus, at times, it feels as though the audience is inside of Medea’s brain, feeling everything that she is feeling. This particular production of Medea, directed by Carrie Cracknell, is still being broadcast today. If you want a play with no lapses and filled with suspense, find out where it is playing near you.


Written by David Hare, "Skylight" was originally produced and staged at the National Theatre in 1995. Now it has been brought back to London’s West End and has been streaming internationally to cinemas since October 23rd. "Skylight" tells the story of schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan), who is visited by Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy), a successful restaurateur who was once her lover. The play not only delves into their relationship as of current, but also becomes a big debate over different ideologies and interpretations of the world.

Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in "Skylight" (@ntlive/Twitter)
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in "Skylight" (@ntlive/Twitter)
The stage is set in a typical flat in an apartment complex, but with a great amount of detail both in and outsde the apartment. With an incredibly detailed backdrop, the stage actually seems to be opening up onto an apartment complex; it’s so real that we even see snow falling! Thus, the designer, Bob Crowley, and the Props Supervisor, Lisa Buckley, deserve great congratulations on their attention to specifics, making the play as naturalistic as possible.

The cast of this play is limited to only 3 actors, and each are incredibly talented in their roles. The show stealers, Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, create such unique yet relatable characters that interact amazingly with each other’s opposite nature; Nighy with Tom Seargeant’s quick temper and short-sighted views and Mulligan with Kyra Hollis’s selflessness and caring nature. Their every conversation is a battle to try and convince the other, seeming so realistic that one feels that they’ve had the conversation before. While the pattern of these arguments might lose the audience at times, the core ideas behind them become very clear as time goes on.

SEE ALSO: 'Into The Woods' Has A Spellbinding Reunion At The Segerstrom Center

As for the character of Edward Sergeant, played by Matthew Beard, although his role is minor in comparison to Nighy and Mulligans’, he has a certain personality that the audience grows to understand and appreciate. He also serves as a great comic relief.

The mood of the play is also aided by the decisions made by the lighting designer Natasha Katz and Sound Designer Paul Arditti. While sometimes very subtle, each change in lighting and in music helps to set the atmosphere of this piece as very melancholy. It is only when one looks back on these elements that one can realize how greatly they supported the piece.

"Skylight" is, overall, a very naturalistic and thought-provoking play, still being streamed in many L.A. cinemas, as well as around the world. For those that seek not just entertainment, but even guidance and revelations about the life that they live, "Skylight" is a thought-provoking piece of theater.


Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Miller in "Frankenstein" (@ntlive/Twitter)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Miller in "Frankenstein" (@ntlive/Twitter)
A play adapted by Nick Dear from the famous novel of the same name by Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein," directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre, ran from February through May 2011. Although it closed a few years ago, "Frankenstein" is still being streamed today due to its immense popularity.

The play tells the story of the brilliant scientist Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, examining the conflict between natural and artificial creation, as well as the nature of being human.

Probably the most unique element of "Frankenstein," and what has greatly contributed to its popularity, is the work of leading actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. What makes their performance so unique is that they actually switch roles; one night Frankenstein will be played by Cumberbatch and the creature by Miller, and the next they will have swapped roles. In doing this, the audience gets to see two different approaches to both characters. We get to watch aach actor play their own version of the character, allowing for great diversity.

Switching roles also means that the interaction between both characters in every production seems to stick like glue. While one would have to see the production more than once to fully experience this, it is definitely worth the second viewing. For this specific review, though, I will focus on Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.

SEE ALSO: It's Alive! 'Young Frankenstein' At The MET Theatre

Miller’s creature is so intricate and detailed, that the audience grows with him. At first, when the creature is created, we see the real difficulty it has in moving, taking minute upon minute to go from flopping around on the floor to crawling, and eventually walking and running. His speech, as well as the movements of the body, makes it clear that the creature still struggles to understand and use its anatomy, retaining its voice throughout.

Playing opposite to Miller’s creature is Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, which is equally well done. Cumberbatch succeeds in creating a character that is even less human than the creature, so fixated on the world of science and discovery that he disregards human interaction, especially intimacy. While not as frequently on stage as the creature, Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein impacts the audience with equal intensity.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Johnny Miller as the Creature. (@ntlive/Twitter)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Johnny Miller as the Creature. (@ntlive/Twitter)
Costume designer Suttirat Larlab truly helps to contribute to this interaction by creating such detailed costumes of each character, especially the creature's. As such, the audience is frequently reminded of his unfortunate hideousness and the way he is stitched together from different parts.

It is because of these performances that the work of the supporting actors is almost disregarded, unfortunately, but not completely ignored. Such characters as Elizabeth Lavenza (played by Naomie Harris), the very sympathetic fiancé of Victor and de Lacey (played by Karl Johnson), the blind man who teaches the creature how to be more human. Overall, the interactions between the characters is fantastic and a key way of gripping the audience.

The set of this production, constructed beautifully by set designer Mark Tildesley, is a combination of simplicity and detail. The stage itself revolves, and can even change angles to help the transitions from scene to scene. With very few set pieces on the stage in the beginning, the audience sees a canvas, as well as hundreds of light bulbs that cover the ceiling of the theatre. When the creature is birthed, with every shove it makes to get out of its ‘womb’, the light bulbs flash momentarily blinding the audience. As the play continues, the audience is introduced to many other interesting set pieces, such as the small strip of grass that the creature lies on, the ‘sun’ appearing on the horizon, the room of a castle and of a makeshift laboratory, a dock, and even a mountainside. Each setting and transition plunges the audience into a huge world while on a small scale.

Perhaps the most surprising and unique aspect of the design is a train that appears near the beginning. With its disorderly and almost steampunk-like presentation, the creature, as well as the audience, is plunged into a strange and scary world. Of course, without lighting and sound, the set would not be able to make such an impact on the audience. As such, Bruno Poet (lighting designer) and Underworld (Music & Sound Score) are key here.

While very few venues are stil showing "Frankenstein," it is still a wonderful play to see and is a game changer for all theatre.

In conclusion — National Theatre Live is an amazing way to experience theater from all over the world. Anyone with access to a movie theater can suddenly find themselves enjoying Broadway productions with their original cast or groundbreaking theater from London's West End. With hundreds of productions streaming every year, National Theatre Live is bringing the best of live theater to your town.

For more information on productions, venues, and ticket prices visit NTLive.NationalTheatre.org.uk

Contact Contributor Benjamin Noble here

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