Every now and then, a dramatist hits on a chance to hold a broken mirror up to nature, so that what first seemed to us a clear portrait of a hero turns into something rough and rippled, streaked with darker desires. Morally troubled beings that we are, we love tracking how our favorite characters try to conquer their own cracked reflections. Dorian Gray hid his away in horror. Dorothy threw a bucket of water on hers. Beowulf hunted his down with a sword, and then went looking for its mother. But Victor Frankenstein’s personal demon is no dark opposite — it’s himself. Or, someone awfully like him.
Drawing the line between master and monster, and their rightful places on this earth, is harder than it seems in the National Theatre’s new stage production of Mary Shelley’s novel, and director Danny Boyle relishes the scribbly in-between. His rich, powerfully cinematic take on Nick Dear’s new script — which he directs with aplomb after many years away in the world of film — uncovers some startling and stunning ways for a parallel pair of actors to wring fresh blood and sweat from a book two centuries old. Boyle’s grandest notion is a particularly juicy reversal: actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch flip back and forth, night to night, between who plays the mad scientist and who plays… well, the mad science.
The full effects of having each actor in both roles remains to be seen, and this reviewer will return to the Harman Center’s big screen on April 23rd to cover a second live broadcast from London, featuring Miller and Cumberbatch in the opposite roles. But Boyle’s intention, it seems clear, is humanistic — to highlight how the two men are twin victims of miraculous circumstances, and to cultivate the inevitable differences in characterization. What a thrill it can be, when crafting a role, for each actor to know his counterpart’s plight from the inside out!
The National Theatre’s televised close-ups and intimate focus on the foreground — techniques that jive nicely with the eclectic design sense Boyle has brought to his recent big-budget Hollywood films — let us catch these actorly evolutions of tone and gesture in full detail. And particularly for Frankenstein’s monster, referred to only as “the creature,” it pans out wonderfully. Thrust suddenly into the world from assembled bits of nothing, the monster quickly learns to act on his ambitions and impulses with all-too-human conviction.
The wounded nobility and raw-throated passion that Cumberbatch brought to his embodiment of the creature in Monday night’s performance was deeply troubling and inspired, with a physical vocabulary so well developed that his improvisation never impeded his precision. Boyle and the boys spent rehearsal time studying stroke victims in recovery, injured patients regaining the use of their limbs, and even two-year-old children as creative springboards for envisioning the creature. And it’s time well spent, since Dear’s script emphasizes, overwhelmingly, the life of the creature.
The first thing the artificial man experiences is no crackling lab table, no frizzy haired creator, no crescendo or moment of “It’s Alive!” Instead, Dear draws out Shelley’s notion that the creature is an Adam in his own right: a man alone, breathed suddenly into being by forces larger than himself — in this case, the miracle of electricity — and left to fend for his own nascent world view. The setting, then, is no crowded castle, but a bare, lonely stage, filled only by a void of pregnant red light and a circular chamber, spanned by taut fabric, through which Cumberbatch comes spilling out like a fleshy, flapping fish.
We sit entranced through this long, wordless opening sequence of birth, growth, and revelation, holding our breath as the actor’s cries and groans — and eventually, when he learns to walk and run, squeals of joy — mark the monster as a child, like all of us, forever and always a vulnerable being. Even speaking, and discovering the muscles of the mouth, becomes a fraught and physical act. It will be interesting how this role, into which Cumberbatch pours all the rigor of a choreographed dance, changes under Miller’s touch.
In this incarnation, at least, the first 15 minutes are the most transcendent part of the night, and although Boyle’s imaginative ideas keep coming — a fantastical train made of humans and spinning cogs steams through, later followed by some amazing scene changes with flying architecture and a massive lazy-susan trapdoor in the center of the stage — the show never again hits that bloody, exhilarating high. Dear’s adaptation of Doctor Frankenstein in particular doesn’t give Miller much to chew on. Stripped down from a troubled, brilliant pioneer to a blunt-minded, reactionary cad, the part of the creator sets the production off-balance. What could have been a sure-footed, frightening repartee becomes a less sustainable story: that of a child, abandoned in his infancy, pleading for mercy from an obstinate maker.
Regardless, it’s fascinating stuff, and the creative team even finds some moments of humor along the way. We laugh softly as the creature hits poignant moments of human struggle. We laugh more bravely when he shows canny signs of manners and tics of etiquette, as when, faced by a terrified victim of conversation, he pats the seat next to him. Sit down, he implies. I’m not here to hurt you. Unless, that is, you’re here to hurt me. For those darker skills, we know — to lie, humiliate, destroy, and debase — are the most human of all.
Version 1: Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Victor)
Version 2: Jonny Lee Miller (Creature), Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor)
The National Theatre Live broadcast of Frankenstein will next be seen April 21, 2011 when Version 1 (reviewed here) can be seen at 2pm and Version 2 at 8pm at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St NW, Washington, DC.
Adapted by Nick Dear from the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
Produced by the National Theatre in London
Broadcast live at The Shakespeare Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approximately two hours