From its announcement, Parade’s End has inevitably drawn comparisons with ITV’s Downton Abbey. I enjoy Downton, but it’s completely outclassed by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s work. I hadn’t read it before I learnt of the BBC adaptation but, borrowing the books from the university library, I found them deeply engaging as a portrait of the tumultuous state of the aristocracy, and the country, in the early twentieth century.
Downton tends to cover social change with quite inconsequential details such as the addition of a telephone to the house, and Sybil’s involvement in the Suffragette movement seems intended largely to generate drama and familial discord rather than to make any insightful point. While Downton portrays the period in a descriptive way, Ford’s work is a detailed exploration of the decline of the aristocracy, the impact of the First World War and changing social ideals.
Both Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia give excellent performances; these characters could have been distinctly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Cumberbatch was the obvious choice for the conservative, intellectual and emotionally repressed Tietjens, and he certainly delivered in his portrayal of the complex emotions suppressed behind Tietjens’ controlled façade. Hall gives Sylvia, portrayed unsympathetically in the books, enough likeability to prevent us from condemning her outright as she amuses herself at the expense of others.
The BBC drama adopts the fractured structure of the novel, flitting between time and place at the start of the first episode. It certainly demands your attention, but is easier to follow than I feared it might be (perhaps aided by the fact that I have read the book). While the first episode largely sets the (rather complicated) scene, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, which promises an increase in the action and the onset of war.
Last year I was lucky enough to be able to see both versions of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, with both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and as Frankenstein. Yesterday I took the opportunity to catch Cumberbatch as the Creature again, at a National Theatre Live screening. The production was excellent, with Cumberbatch standing out as the Creature (as he did as Frankenstein). Cumberbatch has carved a niche for himself as the go-to actor for posh and emotionally repressed (Sherlock, David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, and soon to be Christopher Tietjensin Parade’s End). But as the Creature Cumberbatch shows his versatility and physicality. Cumberbatch commands attention, even though for a substantial part of the first half he doesn’t speak.
Jonny Lee Miller and Naomie Harris give excellent performances but Cumberbatch as the Creature sustains the production. While initially the Creature embodies the joys of living Cumberbatch goes on to capture the increasing despair of a lonely man, abandoned by his creator and rejected by society, his humanity and kindness destroyed by successive confrontations with the world.
At the start the camera was inclined to zoom around and over the stage, but once it settled down the showing was almost as good as the theatre, capturing the atmosphere as closely as possible. As with the showing of She Stoops To Conquer I attended (which featured videos on the play’s costumes as well as an interview with director Jamie Lloyd) the screening featured an interesting video discussing the production.
NTLive is an excellent way to reach out to new audiences, both in the UK and abroad. These screenings are accessible to those not able to reach London and developing new audiences at NTLive can only be beneficial for ticket sales at the National Theatre itself. Recording these performances also preserves them for posterity and allows further showings such as the current screenings of Frankenstein. The screening may also have been beneficial for the two girls I was sitting next to, who were holding hands and hyperventilating at the sheer anticipation of Cumberbatch’s appearance on screen. Who knows how they would have coped with the prospect of seeing him on stage in person?!
Other companies are following the National Theatre’s example, with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of King Lear being broadcast as part of NTLive last year. The Royal Opera House also has a live cinema season. The increasing tendency for organisations to broadcast their live performances can only be a good thing as it broadens access to, and encourages engagement with, audiences.