Frankenstein (more than just nudity)


Because the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein has the two lead actors alternating in the two lead roles, critics were not permitted to review it without seeing both versions.

As I saw it only once (being there in the unofficial capacity of a mere ticket-buying theatregoer), I can see the point. Basically, what I saw was one actor totally wiping the floor with the other — but, to be completely fair about it, it was in the showier role, and I can’t really say whether I would have walked out favoring the other actor had I seen the production with the roles reversed.

Look, I’m gonna be honest with you — I’m a bit more of a Benedict Cumberbatch fan than a Jonny Lee Miller fan. When I bought my ticket, I could tell from the advertising that this show was going to put more of a focus on the Creature — he wasn’t going to spend the whole play just grunting around the stage and accidentally drowning little girls — so I figured I’d want to see Cumberbatch give that rather interesting part a try. Not that I have anything against Miller — actually, I’d thought he was quite cold and creepy in this past season of Dexter, so I figured he’d be able to deliver a perfectly good cold and creepy Doctor F. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was a combination of writing and performing the character of the Creature that was so effective it rendered Frankenstein himself damn near irrelevant.

Permit me to (briefly) gush. Cumberbatch’s physical performance alone is nothing short of astonishing. Nick Dear’s script starts with the Creature’s birth and early development — events that take place in the complete absence of Frankenstein. Without his creator (or anything resembling a parental guiding hand), the Creature flops about onstage, unaware of how his body works or anything about the world in which he finds himself. It’s an awkward, difficult development (Cumberbatch is completely naked, save for a couple of elastic ankle wraps — understandable given the unnatural way the Creature moves before he learns to stand and walk), and it easily gains our sympathy. Our hearts naturally go out to any child in this situation, whether it’s Bambi or a lumbering, scarred human. And Cumberbatch keeps this difficult physical performance up throughout the duration of the show. Even though the Creature sometimes moves with great speed or strength, he’s never all that far from the toddler who still isn’t in complete control of the ability to balance on his own legs.

(There is a single misstep in the physical performance — although, actually, it is a lack of a misstep. After the Creature stumbles around naked, and stumbles around some more with a cloak, he finally acquires a pair of pants. He turns upstage to put them on, and we see him balance on one foot to slip the other into the pants. There’s no way the Creature would manage this, on the first try, without something to lean against. But perhaps we’re simply supposed to conclude that, just like everyone else, the Creature puts on his pants one leg at a time.)

True to Shelley’s original, Nick Dear’s adaptation has the Creature speak. Indeed, once the old blind man teaches him how, you can’t shut him up. The old man teaches him to read as well, and the Creature ends up pretty well-educated — capable of discussing high-level topics such as religion and philosophy. Nonetheless, Cumberbatch still keeps the Creature’s speech slow and difficult. The neurons may be firing, but it takes time for this oversize two-year-old to turn a thought into words and get them out.

Through all of this, Frankenstein is largely not present and nearly forgotten. Having abandoned his… well… child early on, by the time he comes back into the play, it’s hard to get us to care very much about him. Dear’s writing doesn’t do him any favors, either, as Frankenstein is a character of many flaws. Don’t get me wrong, the Creature has some flaws, too — big ones, like a capacity for murder. But we’ve seen the treatment that led the Creature to this point — he’s a victim of abandonment, hatred, mistrust, and brutality — so we can understand. We don’t have a similar background on Frankenstein — he’s pretty much just a self-centered, unthinking jerk. Miller isn’t bad here (he has no problem at all conveying Frankenstein’s jerkiness); he’s just routinely upstaged by a focus-grabbing performance in the role on the other side of the stage.

Example: There’s a great scene where Frankenstein, um, not to spoil anything, but let’s just say he does something unkind to the Creature. It follows a discussion between the two and is clearly motivated by the discussion.  If you take a look at Miller, he has a great acting moment — a reaction to what the Creature has just said to him. You can see him react to it, process it, and make a decision on what to do. He doesn’t say a word; you read it in his actions. But if you’re not looking for it… if you’re not looking at Miller at that precise second, you’ll miss it. And you may, because Cumberbatch’s Creature, unable to stand still, is likely to steal focus.

(And I wonder: when the roles are reversed, is Cumberbatch equally magnetic in the role of the doctor, drawing your eye to him so you’ll see the key reaction? Or would Miller, as the Creature, be the scene-stealer? Conveniently, I’ll have a chance to find out, as the very nice people at NT Live are broadcasting both versions of Frankenstein to worldwide audiences —- check the listings for a movie theater near you.)

I was lucky enough to watch a pre-performance panel discussion with playwright Dear and director Danny Boyle. They had a lot to say about the production, and I was pleased to discover that everything they claimed was in the play was genuinely in the play. (Because, honestly, I’ve had enough experiences where the “Director’s Note” in the program tells you all about the director’s cool approach to the work, and then when you actually see it, none of that promised cool stuff made the leap from the director’s brain to the stage.) Dear and Boyle talked about how Boyle (now better known as a film director) created a very visual production — this is true. They also discussed some of the themes of the play:  the parent/child relationship; and the ethical responsibility of the scientist (responsibilities, actually, as one who creates new life is responsible both to the public and to the life created itself). They talked about how most adaptations tended to get away from Shelley’s original, and how Dear finally managed to get back into it by telling the story from the Creature’s point of view. All of this, happily, is on stage at the National.

There are some interesting tidbits that escaped the discussion. The production is cast color-blind — both Frankenstein’s father and his fiancee, Elizabeth, are played by Black actors. You can discuss the merits of color-blind casting in the abstract all you want, but I think it serves a purpose here. This play takes place early in the 19th Century; people of different races were not, in fact, treated as equals. But by making them equals in this play, it makes the Creature that much more alone. Frankenstein calls the Creature “slave,” and seeks to exert mastery over him — how much more painful to the Creature when there isn’t even a community of slaves with which he can identify; he is the only second-class citizen on the planet–which means, of course, that the play is also about aching loneliness and how relationships with others help define us as humans.

At the panel discussion, someone asked if it was necessary to see both versions of the show. Boyle joked that he has no self-interest in selling more tickets, as the run is already sold out — but said to see one version if you want to see the play, and both if you want to see a study of the art of acting. As a play, it is definitely worthwhile; as a study of acting, I feel as though I still have some unfinished business with it.

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