Friday, February 3, 2017

Theatre Broadcast - Frankenstein

Based on the book by Mary Shelley
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Ella Smith, John Killoran, Steven Elliot, Lizzie Winkler, Karl Johnson, Daniel Millar, Naomie Harris, George Harris, Mark Armstrong, John Stahl, amd Andreea Paduraru
Release Date: March 17th, 2011
Rating: ★★★

The creature is born. Abandoned at birth to find his legs, his voice, his reason for being, all on his own. Like a newborn colt he twitches and flails, stumbles and tumbles, grass, rain, they give him joy. Fire brings warmth and danger. What is sustenance? What is cruelty? Is it the pain at the hands of others? He spies on a family, they show him love and compassion. The de Laceys are good if poor. The young couple's father, blind to the horror of the creature's physiognomy, teaches him to read and shows him true kindness. They hold discourses on philosophy and the meaning of life. The Creature has hope, soon destroyed by de Lacey's son Felix and daughter-in-law Agatha. They view the creature as a monster. So the creature will show them what a monster he is. He burns their home to the ground while they sleep. This act signals to the monster that it is time to meet his creator. The man responsible for making and then abandoning him, Victor Frankenstein; whose life of privileged perfection is about to come crumbling down around him. Don't make a deal with a devil if you aren't prepared for the consequences.

While I would like to be one of those people who when hearing their favorite actor is in a play can jump on a plane and go see them wherever the production is I am sadly not one of those people. Oh how I was tempted though by Danny Boyle bringing Frankenstein to the stage with two of my favorite actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. But thankfully there's this thing called National Theatre Live which brings the most popular of British Theatre to cinemas around the world, a real boon for this Cumberbitch. So while I couldn't afford a trip to England, I could easily afford a few movie tickets. In fact because of the conceit of Benedict and Jonny switching roles every night I bought tickets to both showings, but after seeing it the one time with Benedict as the Creature, I knew I couldn't watch it again. It's not that it's bad, it's that it's very intense. It has this visceral quality that is so relentless that even though it's been quite a few years since I have seen it this production is still seared into my mind. Like the light bulbs flashing on the stage, it's afterimage is still on my retina.

As anyone who has read Frankenstein will tell you the center, the spine of the book, if you will, is the Creature's story. Therefore this production wisely decided to follow the Creature's journey, and leave Victor where he belongs, as a minor part, not the star. This also worked well for the staging with Benedict and Jonny switching roles each night. The Creature is a rather physically demanding role and to be able to have respite and be Victor every other night, not even showing your face until almost half way through the show, must be a blessing. But it's more than just that, this conceit gets to the heart of what Frankenstein is about. The book by Shelley is about the duality of Victor and the Creature being halves of the same whole. They are one person separated into two. The struggle between man and monster becomes an inner struggle with the fluidity of the role. It's like getting front row seats to someone arguing with themself. One side retreats, the other side lashes out. It's not until Victor admits defeat, admits responsibility for severing himself from the Creature that they are able to move forward, ever onward.

This duality only works because of the genius in the casting of the leads. As I have seen time and time again the National Theatre has a distinct problem with peopling the rest of their productions with stars of equal caliber. Sometimes it's one actor who really stands out as quite possible the worst job of portraying Laertes you could ever imagine, other times it's a more widespread pandemic. But sometimes it's all down to the casting agent and director, and it's a great actor in a role they were just never meant to play. This production of Frankenstein had a pandemic on it's hand as soon as Victor entered stage left. The first half predominately staring Benedict as the Creature and Karl Johnson as de Lacey was perfect. But then again, Karl Johnson is an amazing actor, even if you are only fleetingly aware of him his Twister Turrill in Lark Rise to Candleford, he will easily convert you to loving him, as will his mumbling in Hot Fuzz. But after the de Lacey's went up in smoke so did all quality in the cast. Scenes with Victor's father and his true love Elizabeth were painful. The sign of an uneven production is when you can't decide if it's more painful to watch the rape scene or M. Frankenstein rail against Victor's stupidity.

Whatever imbalance there was in the cast I was at least in love with the set design enough that I could distract myself well. In undergrad I majored in Art but I minored in Theatre. And no, no delusions of being an actor here, despite the fact I was forced to take an acting class, I was tech all the way. In particular set design and scene painting. Therefore a well designed set can literally transport me. Whereas a boring set, like those few ladders used in Hiddles's Coriolanus, yeah, here comes boredom... thankfully relieved by Mark Gatiss and a very short tunic on Tom. But here the set perfectly captured the feeling of a time when we were on the verge of such technological breakthroughs. If you think about the science behind Mary Shelley's writing, what she envisioned, this set just perfectly melds with this driving force of progress. She never once mentions how the Creature was animated, but the constant references to Mont Blanc and lightning make the electical component inevitable. Here brought about by the popping and surging of hundreds and hundreds of Steampunk light bulbs. Combined with the train relentlessly driving forward, the future is coming whether we want it to or not, with the force of a steam engine!

If I had to point to one thing this production needed, I would say it needed a heart. Yes, the Creature does an admirable job of showing the emotions that Victor keeps under lock and key, but does the Creature love? I would say he doesn't. In fact, I would say that it's the lack of love in him and his life that leads him to do so much evil. But Victor doesn't have love either. The heart of the book, if we are to stick with this anatomical theme, was Victor's best friend Clerval. He cares for Victor and loves him and it's his death that finally breaks Victor and makes Victor willing to damn himself and the rest of his family to a similar fate. Yet Clerval is absent. Yes, this streamlines the narrative, making it all about the duality of the Creature and Victor, but while this is all well and good, you need someone to care about, someone to root for, someone whose death will actually make you feel. Because the wanton destruction of half the cast doesn't really dent your tear ducts when they were doing a bad job to start with. Clerval needed to be here, he needed to be an actor of equal caliber to Jonny and Benedict, and in fact... perhaps they could have pushed the duality future? Have a third actor that alternates roles. Because seriously, emotion is needed. Shelley didn't write a story about wanton destruction, but the search for humanity. Clerval is the epitome of that.


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