This production of Frankenstein has a lot going for it that’s right up my alley. It’s in London (and despite my love for the city, I’m not in London right now, but I can attend this show thanks to the magic of the National Theatre Live series of broadcasts in movie theatres around the world — I am in Toronto); it’s directed by Danny Boyle (who I’ve concluded is one of my favourite directors, since I’ve loved everything he’s done from Trainspotting, to Slumdog Millionaire, to 127 Hours); and it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who became one of my new favourites after I saw his top notch performance as Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC TV series. Also, I should love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (on which this play was based) because I’m both a sci-fi geek and an English literature nerd and Shelley’s novel is a foundational classic of the genre. (But before I go on, I must confess that I have not read the novel. I know … Bad nerd/geek!) Suffice it to say that I was really anticipating this show.
The play begins with a womb-like structure on stage and the Creature (played by Jonny Lee Miller) emerges from it and flails around, learning to use its body and limbs. It quickly learns to run and grunt, until its creator, Victor Frankenstein (played by Cumberbatch) shows up and is horrified by its grotesqueness (all scars and nakedness). He covers the Creature in a cloak and runs away. What follows are a series of scenes where the Creature encounters various people as it learns and grows. An old blind man even shows compassion, takes care of the Creature, and even teaches it to read. Unfortunately, all encounters end with revulsion, fear, and rejection. When it discovers Frankenstein’s journal in the cloak pocket, it decides to seek out its creator. The Creature ends up killing Frankenstein’s young brother in order to lure him into the mountains where it asks Frankenstein to create a mate for it. Frankenstein promises to do it in return for the Creature agreeing to live isolated from human contact. In the end, he does not hold up the bargain, leading the Creature to seek revenge on Frankenstein. It rapes and murders Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night and flees into the icy wilderness where Frankenstein has no choice but to follow it, seeking to destroy it.
Though a recap of this plot may be more interesting than most, it’s the dialogue and staging that are often key to making good plays. What is featured in this play that often gets lost in other presentations of the Frankenstein story (especially the Boris Karloff-inspired ones where the Creature is a clunky, moaning brute with bolts coming out the side of its neck) is that the Creature learns to think and speak very quickly and it has a lot to say about what it observes of humans and how it is treated by them. Miller gives a pretty good performance as the Creature, but unfortunately it reminded me more of someone suffering from cerebral palsy than an undead creature given new life. I had also expected Frankenstein to either be more intelligent, more obsessed, or more insane. Instead, this Frankenstein came off more as selfish, conceited, and unfeeling. The staging of the play was pretty interesting. The stage was round, with a large chandelier-like lighting apparatus above it that was really cool. The set was minimal, but they were able to raise up or drop down enough to give the very convincing illusion of a country farmhouse, large mansion, or barren wasteland.
All in all, I can’t say that I loved this play. There were definitely a lot of thought-provoking and intriguing moments, but I really didn’t feel an emotional connection with the characters or their conflicts. As far as watching a play in the movie theatre, the picture quality was mediocre. The blacks (and remember that plays often have very stark lighting) were mostly greys, and the contrast was poor (so I kept feeling like they needed to peel off a layer of gauze from the camera or something). It’s a good way to see some productions that aren’t local, but I’m not sure if I would have paid full price (~$23) for the ticket. (4 out of 5)