Frankenstein: National Theatre Live (a NYC review)

OK, I know I'm supposed to be watching Pulp Fiction and writing reviews and whatnot, but last night I got a chance to go see Frankenstein, the hit National Theatre play from London, and I want to write about that.  So there!

Here's the backstory: Frankenstein is part of the National Theatre Live's second season of productions.  Basically, they do a show in London, and it's broadcast (sometimes live, sometimes delayed a few days) in theaters around the world.  Being a huge nerd, I was very excited when I heard about this.  Partially because I like Frankenstein, but mostly because I'm a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (Dexter, Trainspotting).  And these two actors are doing something relatively unique in theatre: each night, they alternate playing the Creature and Dr. Frankenstein.  It's interesting in a lot of ways, for an actor because playing both characters allows them to embrace the connection that exists between the two, and for an audience, you get to see two spectacular actors playing two spectacular roles.

Last night I saw Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor, and next Thursday, I'm going to see it reversed (on my birthday!).  It really was something quite extraordinary.  This play more than anything else focuses on the Creature's evolution (which is nice, because that was always my favorite aspect of the book).  Hell, the first ten minutes are spent while the Creature establishes control over his motor skills.  It's a fascinating physical performance; we see him break out of the womb, learn how to move his arms and legs, crawl, walk, and finally run.  Basically two years of development in the span of about ten minutes.  And it's absolutely mesmerizing.  The Creature's excitement and innocent glee at things such as birds, fire, rain, and other natural elements are a joy to behold, and he approaches the world with the sensibilities of a small child.

We meet other characters as they come and go (the blind man who teaches him to talk and read and think, the villagers who beat him), but the central focus is on the Creature as he comes to understand more about the world.  Unfortunately, the world is not so kind to him as perhaps it should be, and he, now endowed with man's reasoning, becomes bitter at the creator who brought him to live and then abandoned him.  So he resolves to find Frankenstein, and find him he does.

The scene when the Creature and Frankenstein meet is for me the highlight of the play.  Frankenstein is fascinated by his creation, everything that it is capable of and everything that it has learnt in the space of a year, but ultimately he is repulsed by what he sees as an abomination.

Over the course of these two hours, we have seen an actor bring a character from the womb, a convulsing, spastic thing, to an inquisitive child, to an impatient young man with a desire to know and understand everything in the universe, and finally, to a hateful and bitter lonely individual.  He is an intellectual person who so wants to be good, but the world has shown him only hate, and he allows it to shape and distort him.  He says that he has learnt the art of assimilation, how to be like man, but it has only taught him how to hate, to humiliate, and to deceive.  In the novel, the Creature ardently states that if one person would have shown him kindness and love, he would have returned it ten fold, and that he would have suffered the race of man for the sake of that one person.  But in the play, it is only too clear that he has never and will never have that experience.

Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the role of the Creature a fierce intelligence and a bright sardonic wit, which makes his struggle with reason and emotion very raw and powerful.  Jonny Lee Miller, someone I had greatly underestimated as an actor before this production, brings to life a character that is so conflicted with scientific ambition, the desire to play God, and his basic knowledge that what he is doing is unnatural and very very wrong.  I can't wait to see them reverse the roles, and I hope that after the run of the show is over, they'll release both performances on DVD so that I can continue to enjoy them.

Nothing's perfect, and this show is no exception.  I'm confused by the need for color blind casting when it comes to members of the same family (Jonny Lee Miller is white as the driven snow, and his biological father is played by a black Jamaican).  Some of the language is a bit strange, and some of the camera work (suddenly cutting to a wide shot) displaced the emotional focus of a given scene.  But when all is said and done, I think this is a groundbreaking piece of theatre, with two powerful actors fully embracing the work, and the overall effect is brilliant.  I loved every second of the show!

Here's the trailer:

If you have an opportunity to go see this show, you definitely should, because at the moment they're saying that they aren't planning on releasing it on DVD!

EDIT: So I've just gone and seen it again with the opposite cast, and wrote a bit of a follow up.  Here she is: Frankenstein: Part Two

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Anonymous said...

Really wish this would come to my area - it sounds like something I'd love to see! But so joy.

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