Thursday, April 7, 2011

The National Theatre's (and Mary Shelley's) Captivating Frankenstein

On the cusp of my 28th birthday, I decided to give myself a present.  After reading a very small article from a source that is now irretrievable from my memory bank, I realized that The National Theatre in London would be putting on a new production of Frankenstein.  Actually, even though you didn't get to witness it first hand, let me recount the last few moments where I looked on my Facebook page (thanks Mark Zuckerberg for that moment by moment chronicling of my life feature), found the original post and recalled that it was on March 2nd and from Slashfilm.com.  I would hate for someone not to get the credit they deserved in this post.  So there I was, reading, seeing a fantastic looking trailer, and suddenly things kept getting better and better.  The play was directed by Danny Boyle (what?!) it was starring Jonny Lee Miller (YES! I've loved him since Hackers!) AND Benedict Cumberbatch (theater gods, have you been reading my mind or pulling Inception-like stunts to make my dreams a reality?!) and still it got better.  The production was going to be part of The National Theatre's fantastic National Theatre Live program, in which poor saps like us, mostly those who don't live in London where The National is housed, can get to watch their productions live, via cameras recording their live performances.  There was no way I could pass this up.  





Unfortunately, the early performances in March were unmanageable for me, and in somewhat of a huff, I thought I would have to give up.  But still feeling the pull that I HAD to see this, I went searching the National's website once again and lo and behold, there were still April performances.  One credit card transaction later, I was an extremely pleased seat filler.
It's an odd situation, going in to a theater with a screen to watch another theatre where a live performance is taking place.  I wasn't entirely certain how it might feel.  It turns out, there is a slight element of voyeurism going on, and not just of the stage, but of the audience.  I watched as the London seat fillers, well, filled their seats.  I watched them have conversations, I watched them get situated and I thanked Odin that there wasn't a camera trained on me.  Or was there...?  Just kidding.  About the camera part, not about the being creeped out by the potential of voyeurs part.  So there I was, as the play began with the great ringing clang of a bell.
I forgot to mention the main "catch" of this version of Frankenstein:  Benedict Cumberbatch (of recent Sherlock recognition) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Eli Stone) switch roles every evening.  This means that The National has recorded both versions.  One version where Cumberbatch plays the Creature and Miller is Frankenstein and the reverse scenario as well.  I happened to be seeing the version where Miller was the Creature and Cumberbatch was Victor Frankenstein.  I'm not certain I could have planned it better.
From that opening bell, the stage is swathed in red lighting with a circular screen containing the Creature, from which he is birthed.  As much as Frankenstein's subtitle may be "the modern Prometheus", this was Da Vinci's Vetruvian man too.  Only the man was a newborn, incapable of speech, unfamiliar with sound and touch, on unsteady legs.  Watching a gorified Miller as he, for nearly 10 minutes, only communicates in grunts and muscle spasms, and unsteady steps, was like watching a master class in the art of spellbinding.  As an actor, he's so committed to the physicality of depicting what happens when a person first becomes truly aware of their body that it's mesmerizing, embarrassing, and visceral all at the same time.  His first run around the stage brings both sadness and joy, because, well, most of the audience knows where this is all going to end up.  But in the moment, Miller's vulnerability is undeniable.  We'd all like to think we'd never abandon this person.  But the hideous scars still remind us, he's a creature.
Danny Boyle seems to have a thing for trains. Between Trainspotting and the definitive montage set to the wildly catchy "Paper Planes" in Slumdog Millionaire it's an undeniable fact.  And the showiest scene in this play features, of course, a train.  It's only the front part of a steam-driven locomotive, filled with choreographed extras and music done by Underworld, a progressive electronica UK outfit, but it feels just right.  As the train barrels towards the audience, it narrowly misses the Creature, who reacts as any frightened being would, and this scene, quite literally, sets us on the true collision course.
The remainder of the hour belongs to Miller, who truly is stunning in this role.  Unafraid of slinging saliva as he begins to try to form his mouth around words and his journey, constantly played on raised feet that don't know how to stand quite still, he is the embodiment of the Creature, but he is more than that.  Where other interpretations have treated Frankenstein's vision come to life as a secondary necessity, this version gives a face and tortured eyes to the soul beneath the body.  It really is something to watch in amazement.  As the first part ends, the Creature has finally learned, not just words and stories, but those ever-powerful human emotions, chief among them, revenge.
I say "first part" but this production does not have an intermission.  You're warned of that in the beginning, so take that early bathroom break when you can.  
The essential halfway point is marked with the return of Victor, whom we only briefly see at the beginning as he flees what he sees as his monstrosity.  I do have to admit to missing Mr. Cumberbatch for a while, but when I saw the extremely powerful confrontation that sets up the second part, I was happy to have been kept waiting.  When Miller and Cumberbatch are onstage together, it's hypnotizing.  It's part of the brilliance of the entire set-up of this production.  By having both actors switch roles every night, they've managed to both remain individual and, yet, pick up on each other's nuances, so that, as the story goes on, the mirror imaging is undeniable.  Not only are scientist and experiment the same, we are the same.  We are all both Creature and Frankenstein at the same time.
The first confrontation ends with a plea from the Creature for a female version of himself so that he might actually know companionship and love, the best parts of ourselves.  Frankenstein, driven by his ego, agrees, but of course those plans are of the best laid nature, and we all know what happens to those.  Sticking as closely to the novel as a 2-hour production can allow, the scene with Elizabeth (Frankenstein's bride) in her room is powerful and heartbreaking at the same time, as is the end where the final confrontation between master and slave/Creature and creator must come to terms with both their pasts and their futures, which are, of course, inevitably intertwined.  By the time the final bell rings, you might be a little exhausted.
In this production, the Creature is clearly the flashy part, but Miller plays it with enough held back that at the moments when he lets go, the audience is unprepared.  There is such heart and soul in his pleadings to understand human nature and such sadness when all he finds are our faults, that it's impossible not to be taken by him.  Cumberbatch is the foil to this showiness.  He is conservative, seclusive, reigned-in entirely, without release, except for one awful and chilling moment.  He seemed like the perfect Victor to me.  It was everything I loved about him in Sherlock but something about the stage and the interaction led an air of accessibility to it.  Of the others in the cast, Naomie Harris' (probably best known for Pirates of the Carribbean:At World's End) Elizabeth is equal parts lovely and nurturing, the "perfect" woman and her brother William (played by the eager Jared Richard) form the emotional ties.  The rest of the fairly small cast perform admirably, but still feel like they're not really in the same show as Cumberbatch and Miller.  Seeming especially out of his depth, and sadly, is George Harris (known to me as Kingsley from the phenomenon known as Harry Potter).  His emotional/overemotional reactions seemed off and a bit like he was trying to play the character for more than needed.  It's ok to be second string to these guys.  Miller and Cumberbatch ARE the show.
The setting is nothing extravagant, a screen that forms a semi-circle and one secondary level that comes and goes as needed, but everything is perfectly spaced, and the giant cluster of lightbulbs that form an electric chandelier above the stage is brilliant.  As human emotions are experienced it brightens and dims as necessary.  Underworld's music is the final, fitting piece.  Equal parts human heartbeat and Industrial Revolution with a beat that beckons us forward and warns us at the same time, that we may not like what we see.  The script is filled with subtle, welcomed, moments of lightness, and heartbreaking confessions, and all the while honoring all of those elements that make Frankenstein a classic novel today.  I do believe that Mary Shelley would, at the very least, enjoy this night out at the theatre.  Catch it if you can!



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