Frankenstein by National Theater Live

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were able to attend a showing of The National Theater’s Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  Being fans of Cumberbatch from the BBC show Sherlock, we jumped at the chance to attend and luckily have some like minded friends that would take us on a road trip.  Before anyone gets the impression that we have somehow made our way over to England or something, what we saw was a screening of the play filmed as a movie in St. Louis.  This new initiative, Called National Theater Live, is designed to get folks from all sorts of cities all around the world a chance to see a play normally just shown in London.  The play was directed by Danny Boyle, the guy behind the hugely popular film Slumdog Millionaire, and relied on an intriguing premise: on each night the two prominent actors (Miller and Cumberbatch) would switch roles, one night Miller would play Victor, the next he would play The Creature.  It’s a novel idea, but I still can’t stop thinking of a skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look:

As a young boy I had read the actual book, Frankenstein, and loved its dark science fiction elements far more than the Universal Pictures movie of the same name.  What always bugged me about the film was that they removed all the substance from the character of The Creature.  They literally took his voice away and made him well …. crappy.  This is no jab at Boris Karloff, but that film just isn’t my cup of tea.  Since then, I have seen a handful of films and TV miniseries that try to take the actual story seriously, all of which have fallen flat.  It was a great pleasure to finally see a version of the story true to the book in all its vile twisted glory!

The version we watched had Miller as Victor and Cumberbatch as the Creature, we only found out that the St. Louis Tivoli Theater was planning to show the later version a few days ago, but another trip to the other side of the state is largely out of the question this month.

The acting was, above all, top notch. Cumberbatch played the role of The Creature almost as if he based it on someone with a severe learning disability.  while immensely intelligent, the creature lacked any sort of social skills to exist in human society, not to mention his abnormal looks.  Miller was equally great as Victor, portraying him as a truly detestable man, someone that takes no responsibility for his actions whatsoever.  There were also appearances by a handful of actors that I’ve seen on other things including Karl Johnson, the guy who played the old man police constable in Hot Fuzz.

One felt true anguish watching the monster get beaten down and mistreated when what he really needed was nurturing and help.  This lead to horror when the creature, taking cues from a society that he sees as evil, does the most evil deeds one can imagine.  When you have Victor acting like an arrogant jerk as he does in this play, the question really becomes – who is the “bad guy” in all of this?  Once leaving the theater we felt emotionally drained and pissed off (at the world not the production), emotions that one should feel when watching something like this.

My only gripe with the play was a small problem with the otherwise awesome production. Towards the beginning of the play we were treated to a bit of interpretative dance as the Creature is hurled into the streets for the first time after being rejected by his creator.  A “steam locomotive” made up of dancers then pulls up and a weird Andrew Lloyd Weber-esque song and dance scene occurs.  This scene was very beautiful visually but sticks out as doing nothing more than dragging out the beginning of the play.  I’ve heard that the actual dance scene is something like twenty minutes long, thank God all we got was the edited down version.

If this ever comes out on DVD or is your city is holding a showing, I would greatly recommend seeing this, as it made for the highlight of a long road trip.

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2 thoughts on “Frankenstein by National Theater Live”

  1. Wonderful review. I saw the Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature version when it showed in NYC a couple of weeks ago. Fantastic portrayals and I long to see them in the roles that you watched. Thank you for a peek at what that was like.

    With what I saw, the Creature’s birth as done by Miller was heart wrenching and stunning. I agree about the sequence with the train but at the same time, the rush of sound and activity and the Creature’s reaction to all the clamor and being faced with the onslaught of society … well here in NYC when I walk the streets where people are moving so quickly and the sounds are so loud, I sometimes wonder how overwhelming it can be as you try to grasp what is happening as quickly as possible in order to try to keep up. Miller played that scene of the Creature’s journey as a poignant example of how he’s trying to figure out the world and how to live in it. I loved the soundscape. I loved watching Miller’s joy at discovery and felt his moments of rejection, happiness, etc. It was a wonderful ride and yes by the end of it, I too felt upset with the world and how cruel it can be. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein had a bit of remorse in his personality and regret for running away on the Creature. But as soon as he got a goal in mind, that all went away and anything that tried to get in the way suffered. It’s very rare to find oneself siding with characters that perform evil deeds and Miller’s Creature is one of those rare characters. Very moving production. And I’m very happy that the National Theatre started these screenings.

    Like

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