Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Frankenstein at London's National Theatre (filmed live)

I'm inclined not to like works based on Frankenstein. I was assigned the Mary Shelley book three times in college, and I didn't even enjoy it the first time. The ideas behind the book are impressive, especially for such a young author, but I find the writing itself dreadful. I also don't like horror movies, and Frankenstein movies have generally abandoned all that's good and thoughtful in the book in favor of the archetypes of the mad scientist and his dumb monster (archetypes that might, in fact, have originated there).

With all that in mind, I was wary of the National Theatre (London) production, even though it was adapted by Nick Dear (who also adapted Jane Austen's Persuasion for the 1995 film starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, which I have seen at least fifty times) and directed by Danny Boyle (who won an Oscar for directing Slumdog Millionaire). But the production stars my current obsession Benedict Cumberbatch (finally coming to fame as Sherlock on the BBC's new hit show) and my longtime obsession Jonny Lee Miller (unfortunately probably still best known as Angelina Jolie's first ex-husband) alternating in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Of course I had to see it!

I couldn't quite fit a jaunt over to London into my recent trip to Dublin, so I had to settle for a screening of each version of the play at the marvelous Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The National Theatre recorded and broadcast it live and also made it available for later showings at movie theaters across the world. I was lucky enough to see screenings of both versions of the cast, and I'm so grateful that I did. The filming was much better the second time, the actors fit their parts better, and I'm just in love with this beautiful production. Once War Horse closes at Lincoln Center, this should be the next production there. I can't think of another Broadway theater that would suit.

I won't go into the plot of the show, as that's all readily accessible on Wikipedia (or--*gasp*--in the book). I will say that having the play take place mostly from the Creature's perspective rather than Victor's was brilliant. The extended birth scene was breathtaking. It felt like a full five minutes of the Creature's stunning wordless grunting and frustration as he struggled to master his gross motor skills, and my heart cheered as he took such delight in being able to walk and even run. That entire scene was so different in the two performances, and I loved them both. (Before the performance, they showed an excerpt of a documentary about the development of the show, and Cumberbatch and Miller talked about their different influences for that scene. Cumberbatch studied how brain-damaged people relearned to control their bodies, while Miller took his inspiration from watching his toddler learn to walk.)

Between the brilliant use of lighting to represent the fairly new marvel of electricity and the invigorating birth scene, the opening of Frankenstein is one of the most exciting scenes I've ever seen on stage (up there with the canvas priming in Red), and I only hope I can someday see it live. If Cumberbatch and Miller came with the production, I would have to move to New York for the length of the run, though I would definitely go see it with any talented no-name actors too.

Naomie Harris was wonderful as Elizabeth, though she was more compelling with Cumberbatch's Victor as she had no real chemistry with Miller (more on that later). Andreea Padurariu's dance as the Female Creature was beautiful, and I really loved that dream moment in the show. Ella Smith was completely hilarious in both her roles, the town wench and a Frankenstein family servant. The kindly old man who nurtures and tutors the Creature (I believe played by Karl Johnson, but I don't remember most of the characters' names) was brilliant and both Creatures played off him wonderfully. Victor's young brother William was double cast and one was really so much better than the other, but I don't know which. George Harris was bloody awful as Victor's father--stunningly bad in an otherwise excellent cast.

The filming was much better for the second showing (Cumberbatch as Victor). The first time (Cumberbatch as the Creature), there were too many closeups so that we lost perspective with what was going on elsewhere on the stage or others' reactions to the speaker. That's fine for TV and movies, which are blocked with closeups in mind, but much of the director's intent is lost when the full stage is rarely visible. Also, they spent too long panning up to the gorgeous overhead lights that stood in for lightning and electricity at the expense of what was happening onstage.

And, ok, even with the modesty loincloth they added just for filming, during the birth scene I really, really, really didn't need to get so up close and personal with Sherlock Holmes's junk--and certainly not for that amount of time. AWKWARD. Miller spent less time with his bum in the air as he learned to walk, and the camera angles were much more appropriate (and flattering) for the second show.

Oh dear. This is a long post already and I haven't even compared the two leads. The first time around, I was blown away by the production as a whole. It's visually fantastic and has wonderful things to say about the nature of humanity, obsession, responsibility, and fear of the unknown. Cumberbatch was fantastic as the Creature, but I was a little disappointed with Miller as Victor. He was good, very good, but I had heard that they were both better in the opposite roles, and after seeing both I definitely agree. Miller came across as completely self-centered and unable to connect with anyone, including his betrothed, Elizabeth. Even beyond his acting choices, they had no spark, and I really couldn't see at all why they were engaged, what she saw in him, why she was willing to follow him anywhere and indulge his obsession with science. Also, I found much of his dialogue awkward, which I attributed to the script at the time.

But after seeing the roles switched, the entire production clicked. Part of that was better filming and part me knowing what to expect (after seeing the ending once, the weird train scene at the beginning seemed to make more sense). And I was free to pay attention to smaller details. But the cast as a whole (two exceptions noted above) seemed to mesh so much better in this configuration. Elizabeth was captivated by the distracted but generally well-meaning genius, and she saw that her "unwomanly" yearning for knowledge and adventure could be indulged as his wife if he would just take her with him. He clearly didn't think she could keep up and didn't want the distraction, but he did connect with her, was drawn to her, was attracted to her--but the opposite force was just greater for him. His Victor was just so much more human, and Miller's Creature became over the course of the show much more human and erudite than Cumberbatch's did, which for me better drove home the point of Victor being much more the monster than the Creature ever was. The dialogue seemed perfect when coming out of their mouths in these roles. And looking back I know that the opposite casting has merit and really some wonderful details, but for me this version was just at a whole different level.

I hope the National Theatre decides to release it as a two-DVD set so that I can watch them both to my heart's content, but it seems unlikely so far. Alas. (Apparently if you visit the NT, you can watch any of their filmed productions. When I make it to London, I suspect I'll spend my days in the archives and my evenings at the theater.)

And now I leave you with one of the most stunning ads I've seen for a theater production (though I like the official image at the top of this post, too):

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