Friday, April 1, 2011

Not Your Grandmother's "Frankenstein"

Since 2009, the National Theatre has been filming performances of its plays and screening them in moviehouses around the world, while the play continues running in London. This is quite a gift for those of us whose passports are getting moldy.

While this extraordinary “Frankenstein” is on in London, I am in New York. The National Theatre’s broadcast of the play has all sorts of juicy extras. Emma Freud introduced the play and an excerpt from a National Theatre documentary on the making of the production. Called “Creating Frankenstein,” the excerpt whets the appetite for the full documentary.

Seeing a play on film is not the same as seeing it live, but the National has done this very well. The play is not performed on a proscenium stage but a thrust, and the film does not merely shoot the stage from the audience point of view. We are up in the flies, among the extraordinary web of lights looking down on the characters, we are house left, house right, we are close up, we are removed, but only so much.

The play opens with a membrane stretched across a frame -- a canvas? We see a figure, perhaps a child. Then the extraordinary series of chandeliers flash and the body moves. It is alive, moving forward. The development of the child is explored physically, from lifting the head, to flopping about, to crawling, to trying ever so hard to balance, to the miracle of standing. The “child” shouts out his pain and glee and he discovers walking, skipping, running. Finally he collapses from his exertion near his incubating membrane. A fully dressed man enters. Touches it. The manchild moves, appalling and frightening his creator. And we’re off.

This “Frankenstein” gives voice to Victor Frankenstein’s experiment, and tells the story largely from the Creature’s point of view. Born alone, rejected by its creator, the Creature wanders into the world, meeting more rejection as people scream running from his horrific looks. He spends a year in and around a mountain cabin where only the blind man does not reject him, and from this man he learns not only speech but reading. He reads Milton, and, just as importantly, he reads Victor Frankenstein’s journal. He learns great philosophies and he learns about this race of which he is a part but separate. It is here in the mountains that the Creature, once again rejected, reveals that flaw that will always keep him apart. He is, after all, still a child, and, despite his articulacy, does not, cannot restrain his viler instincts. The culture he has learned cannot teach and strengthen him to disdain revenge and retribution on those who’ve hurt him. No short measures for him, all he knows how to do is kill. All that learning has taught him to strategize, so once this Creature’s only friend is dead at his own hand, he makes his plan – to demand a “favor” of his creator. Or else. He sets off from the woods and hills around Ingolstadt and makes his way to Geneva.

The director has not merely cast one man as the Creature and one as Victor. No, he cast two, and Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock Holmes in Masterpiece Mystery’s modern series) and Jonny Lee Miller (“Eli Stone” a few years back, among other things) play both roles, trading off on alternate nights. I didn’t care which combination of actors was in this film, and the performance I saw shows Cumberbatch as Victor and Miller as the Creature. I now yearn to see the alternate version, partly because of the bits of the documentary shown in which the two men talked about preparing for the role of the Creature. Were I in London, I’d book a ticket for the next performance opposite to the one I’ve just seen.

This is not to say I didn’t like the actors in these roles. I’m just fascinated at the idea of watching them switch back and forth between creator and created, between overweening man brought down by his own hubris and the “lesser” being that brings him down. Really interesting to watch these two guys work. In their first meeting, the Creature is frighteningly alive, full grown, horribly scarred, but inarticulate. By their second meeting, the Creature has become well read, and he quotes Milton to Victor. Victor says, amazed, “You’ve read Paradise Lost?” The Creature responds, “I liked it.”

The production has an interesting, warm, strong Elizabeth (Victor’s fiancée) in Naomie Harris. Victor’s father, the magistrate, is a tad over the top as played by George Harris in a classical style. Victor’s younger brother William, a very deliberate victim of the Creature in his quest for Victor’s attention, is rather stiffly played in this performance by Jared Richard (three young boys play William on different nights). The mountain family the Creature resides by, the De Lacey’s, are played by a wonderful trio of actors who make this segment in the larger tale a really interesting story in itself: Agatha is well played by Lizzie Winkler – she is so likable, so appreciative of the mysterious gifts that she never questions (but which could only have been provided by the Creature), her husband Felix by Daniel Millar, a solid man of the earth; both of these lovely people disappoint us dreadfully when they immediately react violently against the physical appearance of the Creature, despite his developmental leaps. Finally the blind teacher DeLacey, a sweet, sensitive and giving performance by Karl Johnson. The four seasons the Creature passes with DeLacey, hiding from all others, are the only good he experiences. And he doesn’t behave at all well when fear and hate overpower the good old man’s kind intentions. The Creature’s revenge is swift and final, showing us who he will become when his will is thwarted.

Back at the Frankenstein estate, we see a delightful actress we saw early on as a prostitute, but here she is Elizabeth’s maid, Clarice. Ella Smith steps out from the ensemble in these two characters and does right by both of them. The entire ensemble is fabulous, playing a train and the citizens around the tracks in town, hobos, Scottish fishermen, estate workers, things and people, whatever’s needed. A terrific group of players.

Meanwhile, the rest of the production was imaginative, polished, and inspired: We see fire, we see rain, we see cold, we see good, we see evil. We see causality. All this through the smart and sharp script by Nick Dear and the masterful direction of Danny Boyle, augmented by the broad to highly detailed strokes by scenic designer Mark Tildesley, which worked in brilliant harmony with Bruno Poet’s exhilarating lighting design. All through the work as seen by Dear and Boyle (who’ve been working on this creation for many years), we see the age of science and reason faltering in its very humanity. Victor Frankenstein substitutes electricity for God, and creates a faulty circuit. Had he not deserted the child, could he have taught him well? Could Victor, by taking responsibility for his actions from the get-go, have prevented the death and heartbreak wrought by his neglected child? Who is the monster in this story?

The Creature would like to be called Adam, and he wants an Eve. He dreams of her as being put together from mismatching pieces, just like him, someone who would not reject him. This dream Eve is played with balletic grace by Andreea Padurariu. We see her again later, when the Creature has made his pact with his creator: He and his bride will leave for South America if only Victor will make him that mate. Victor travels first to England, then the northern islands of Scotland to meet the Creature’s demands.The bride is clearly a step up in Victor’s work – not yet animated, but movable, she is not as hideously scarred as the Creature. Victor learned from his technical mistakes. Addlepated by whatever he was drinking, not to mention his gruesome practices, Victor converses with his dead brother William, who questions the wisdom of creating two such beings, asking will they reproduce, and therefore what race of monsters will Victor bring into the world this time?

The showdown between Creature and creator sets up the rest of the story. When Victor shows a lick of sense and destroys the not-quite-living “Eve,” the Creature demands vengeance. Victor knows this, knows the Creature will follow him back to Geneva. Either he mistakenly believes the Creature’s vengeance will be simple, demanding Victor’s own death, or he uses his new wife Elizabeth as bait for the Creature. In either case, Victor underestimates his creation. As Elizabeth awaits her husband on her wedding night, the Creature breaks in, woos away any reserve she had, conversing with her as a civilized man, and she, open-hearted, agrees to speak to Victor on his behalf. The audience, too, is lulled into complacency here, until the Creature quietly says he’s learned all about man, including the one thing that nothing except man does. He’s learned to lie. He rapes Elizabeth as she screams for Victor, who shows up in time to see the deed and Elizabeth’s death, but for some reason is unable to shoot the monster his Creature has become.

Finally the Creature leads Victor to hell. Otherwise known as the vast expanse of lifeless ice that is the Arctic Circle. In the book, we see Frankenstein die, we see the Creature mourn him, then build his own funeral pyre. Here the Creature cradles the seemingly dead Victor, but Victor revives, his fur-clad body writhing in much the same way the Creature’s had as he learned to move, crawl, and stand. The two walk into the white light of the ice, Creature and creator continuing the journey until death.

It’s a rather gorgeous production, and I’d love to be able to fly over to London on a whim to see it live in person instead of live on film. As it is, this well-filmed live performance was a treat. Theatres where the National’s program is available are shown on their website, I hope it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.

~ Molly Matera, signing off but not turning off the computer -- the National’s online programme is a treat, too.


  1. Well done! But I am a bit jealous--alas, a family emergency kept me from this much-anticipated treat--one of my favorite long-18th c novels, with layers upon layers of meanings and references that will some day see the light of day in an 18th century scholarly journal article created from my own brain and hand (and a few citations). Brava for calling Victor Frankenstein "Victor" and for appropriately calling the creature "The Creature" rather than "Frankenstein." Assume you've seen very many versions and that you are well acquainted with Shelley's text. Which movie version (or TV movie version) do you prefer? I adore most things Branagh from his very early years and so looked forward to his cinematic creation, but DeNiro as the Creature was a bit much and I simply could not suspend disbelief, nor did I appreciate Helena B-C (Ken's then amorata)being "recreated" a la Elsa Lanchester in the old "Bride" at the former film's end. Is this available online via the National? I'd see it on the West End "if" as well, along with Tennant and Tate--what a season! (Speaking of "Who," looking forward to April 23 and not just because it is Shakespeare's "maybe" birthday!). Please let your loyal fans know if there will be any public showings of that sci-fi treat--before, please, if you don't mind!

    Do you know Ellen Moer's take on "Frankenstein" as a birth myth? Great essay. Do note, though, re: The Creature's incipient violence, that in the text he does start out by being gentle though clumsy and subsists on nuts and berries and not tearing into flesh raw or cooked (apologies to Levi-Strauss). He is simply rejected by his birth mother/father in a most cruel way and that turns him into a violent creation, sadly, but brilliantly....

  2. Keep an eye out for the documentary the National's done on this production -- even from the clips shown in the theatre, I think Boyle & Dear were well aware of the birth myth possibilities. I have not read Moer myself, however. Since I just bought (gulp)a Kindle and classics are free, I'm going to read that amazing novel again to see what new ways I can find to look at it. Since Boyle/Dear really told it from the Creature's POV, the violent turns come purely in response, especially with no one to say, "no, that's not the way."
    Re Branagh's version, I enjoyed much of it, but what's niggling at my brain is a much older version with ...I think it was Michael Sarazin as the Creature (I believe he was articulate) and Leonard Whiting (Zeffirelli's Romeo) as Victor. I'd like to see that one again....