Today in Critics at Large, Steve Vineberg revisits the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein which David Churchill first reviewed for C @ L over a year ago.
No. Director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) has not done a new film version of Frankenstein. Currently on the boards in London's West End, Boyle's brilliant play Frankenstein (it was written by Nick Dear) is a monster hit sell-out (it closes, or is supposed to, on May 2nd). I was fortunate to see it four days ago without having to drop a fortune for an airline ticket, or scalper prices at the theatre.
Beginning in 2009, the National Theatre Company in London began offering live broadcasts of shows on their stages to movie theatres around the world. It is a fabulous idea. The National Theatre attracts some of England's finest actors and actress, such as Helen Mirren, Judi Dench (I was able to see her live in London in 2009 in the scintillating play, Madame de Sade – and, gushing fan moment, got to meet her briefly at the stage door after), Derek Jacobi and Jude Law. There are risks involved in these broadcasts. Since they are sent via satellite to the cinemas around the world, there is a chance that you might pay your money and see nothing if the signal is lost. I thought that was going to happen on the night I saw Frankenstein. Before the play started, on screen there was a hostess setting up the night, followed by a short documentary on the making of the play. The sound wasn't working. After twice springing out of my seat to complain, they fixed the problem just before the play itself was to begin. The show was mildly marred all evening long by occasional sound drop-outs (something they warn about at the start), but compared to not seeing it at all because of no sound, it was something I was happy to live with.
|Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch|
The other conceit is that this show is told from the point of view of the Monster, not Victor. The play opens on an empty stage, save for a circular structure with a body visible through a diaphanous cloth. Beautifully evoked by lighting designer, Bruno Poet, the lightning strikes with the use of thousands of bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling that ripple and flash to simulate the storm. The body twitches to life, tumbles through the diaphanous cloth and flops onto the stage. Over the next ten minutes, the body moans, crawls, contorts its limbs, crawls, unsteadily gains its feet, takes its first few steps and then finally, moaning in pleasure, runs a circuit around the large, circular stage. Victor appears very briefly to disown what he has created and then vanishes for the next 45 minutes. The second scene was a bit confusing to me, as several cast members came on stage aboard an odd-looking train. The actors are part of the steel beast. It took me a few minutes to realize that we were 'seeing' is how the Monster would perceive something for the first time (he's reborn basically a blank) and how he witnesssed a train filled with people. It is a hellish vision that would be almost impossible to interpret if you had never encountered it before.
|Miller as the Monster|
From there, it is a spiral down as the Monster tracks down his creator. One thing the blind man also taught the creature was the need for love. He finally catches up to Victor (after committing a horrible atrocity on the family) and demands a mate. He promises to leave Europe with his 'bride' if Victor will create a woman for him to love. Victor, horrified by what he has created, reluctantly agrees. He abandons his fiancé, Elizabeth, for six months to do his work. Bad things happen (caused deliberately by Victor) and the creature seeks his vengeance against him. This is grim, devastating stuff that the writer Dear and director Boyle handle with a great deal of compassion. We alternate, ourselves, between loathing and feeling pity for Victor’s creation. The Monster’s acts of violence are from unresolved rage; Victor's are horrifyingly calculated. It is here that the question comes up: who is the true monster?
|Miller as Monster/Cumberbatch as Monster|
And yet, these are all quibbles. There are so many scenes I would love to talk about that occur later in the play, but at the risk of spoiling the story for those who've never read the Shelley novel (as I said, with well-thought-out adjustments, this is very faithful to the novel), I can't. Suffice it to say, the sequence between the Monster and Elizabeth is amazing on multiple levels.
A few final thoughts. Digital photography generally requires a great deal of light to properly illuminate the images. Unfortunately, many of the early scenes take place at night, so sometimes the action is hard to see. Another problem is publicity and attendance. Perhaps it was the movie theatre I saw it in (in Markham, Ontario, just north of Toronto), but for a play that had great buzz and was reviewed (as a play) very favourably two weeks ago in The Globe and Mail, I thought there would be a pretty good crowd willing to see this one-of-a-kind event. Including me, there were two people in the audience. That’s a shame. But that might merely be a consequence of the theatre and city it was shown in. It also showed across Canada and in three other theatres in Toronto. Perhaps they were packed. Hopefully, the National Theatre continues with this program, because it sure is a great way, with some technical limitations, to see the great stage works on the London stage without having to go there.
- originally published on April 4, 2011 in Critics at Large.