The Sunday Salon: Frankenstein

Fathom Events is awesome. Last summer, you might recall my costumed viewings of The Lord of the Rings in theaters; these are the folks that made it happen. They screen all sorts of amazing things in theaters, from productions at the Metropolitan Opera to episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. When I heard they were screening the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, I immediately reached out to my friend Natalya, and, on Wednesday, we trekked to the north side of Atlanta to take it in.

Last year, England’s National Theatre produced playwright Nick Dear’s new stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, as directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). Along with the fresh script and innovative staging, this production of Frankenstein boasted one more novelty—the roles of the Creature and Frankenstein would be switched off every night by two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller. To say that this production was successful is a bit of an understatement. Performances were regularly sold out and, ultimately, two performances were filmed (in order to capture both casts). The first run in theaters went so well that it came back this summer with Fathom Events, which considerably expanded its reach. I remember the first theatrical release and wishing I could go, but, alas, there was nothing remotely nearby. Or in the country, if I recall correctly. And it’s still wildly popular; Natalya and I expected to be one of the few people there or at least alone, but it was very well-attended. We came in behind a gaggle of teenage girls who were clearly there to ogle Benedict Cumberbatch. The chatty one seated directly to my left actually reached for him when he appeared onscreen in the short production video before the main event.

The first fifteen minutes shut her up and, by the end, she was grabbing her friends and declaiming “that was theater!” at them. Which I think really speaks to how powerful the play is.

In that short production video, Nick Dear talks about making the play all about the Creature, to contrast against the novel, which is all from Viktor’s perspective. I think because the roles were being alternated, I assumed that the play was split fairly evenly between the Creature and Viktor, but it’s not. The first fifteen minutes is all the Creature; after he is birthed from a womb-like hoop, we watch him painfully, slowly learn how to walk. From there, Viktor flits in and out of the Creature’s life (and occasionally has a scene or two to himself) until the two make their pact to give the Creature a female mate. Just as the Creature begins to fixate on Viktor, so does the audience, and the play continues until everything but each other is stripped away from both man and creator.

The staging is particularly brilliant; it’s hard to describe the stage, but it makes excellent use of the aisle, a rotating platform, and a stunningly gorgeous overhead display of lightbulbs, to mimic both stars and electricity, Viktor’s particular god. It’s simple and clean, forcing you to focus on the two men in front of you. Well, not you, exactly. I experienced something very odd while watching Frankenstein; while I was engaged and enjoying the production to the point of feeling the creative juices flowing (always a good sign), I felt a bit detached. Despite the shockingly stunning cinematography of the filming of this production (you’re privy to several amazing shots the actual audience could have never seen), it’s still taped live theater, and I’m watching an audience watch Frankenstein. It was hard for me to tap into their fixed energy and it lacks the immediacy of live theater, although, I will admit, I screamed at one point.

Cumberbatch is brilliant as the Creature; the clearly challenging physicality of the role (Cumberbatch studied stroke victims to develop it) becomes effortless in his hands and he gives the Creature a brutal emotional honesty—because, after all, in the right light, the Creature is a neglected child. One presumes that they decided to alternate roles so Cumberbatch or Miller wouldn’t utterly exhaust themselves night after night. I’ve always been fond of the makeup for the Creature, although (poor Cumberbatch!) the bald cap becomes detached half an hour into the filmed performance. Miller’s Viktor is… well, to be perfectly honest, we called him “Richard Armitage without a soul” on the way back. But it works, because Viktor is actively denying that he has a soul, isn’t he, by rejecting love and friendship? As the Creature seeks validation from his creator, Viktor is seeking to create a source of self-validation, and being able to create life when you so choose seems like a pretty good source. Oh, the end is just brilliant, as the two mirror each other and almost understand one another… but, of course, it’s too late. Frankenstein is a tragedy, after all.

On the way back, I told Natalya, “That production has something to say about women, but I need to parse it out”. Dear seems to be trying to bump up female representation in the story; one brilliant moment comes when Elizabeth challenges Viktor’s desire to be able to create life by saying that there’s a usual way to do that. And Viktor, when challenged to make a woman, later becomes terrified by the concept of the Creatures breeding, carrying through this contrast of the life-producing woman versus destructive man. But the fact that Elizabeth does nothing to go after her goals makes us not care about her and there’s rape in this production, about which I’m torn. On the one hand, I see where Dear is going thematically (he does a similar thing with Viktor and the female Creature), and the Creature has been murdering right and left until that point. On the other hand, it feels unnecessarily shocking to me.

Because of Boyle’s background in cinema, there’s several cinematic touches, but I think my favorite is the use of music. Boyle commissioned Underworld, the same people who did the score for his film Sunshine, to do the music here. There’s something charmingly simple about “Dawn of Eden”, a guitar-based piece with vague, cheerful chanting that accompanies the Creature’s delight in the discovery of sunrise. But the best piece is a repeated motif, driving, industrial, and striking you like a blow with every piece of bass. You can hear it at the end of this track, “Come Scientist Destroy”, from the soundtrack. (There was a soundtrack!)

Well, I’m typing this up from my brand-new summer digs! I start at my publishing internship on Monday, so I’m quite excited for that. Between the end of my library internship and moving out, I haven’t read much, but I did finish The Lonely Polygamist and Out of Oz this week.

 The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What are your favorite adaptations of Frankenstein?

5 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Frankenstein

  1. I’m hoping to see this in August, when it’ll be at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. They show a lot of filmed productions of National Theatre plays, but they rarely seem to work with my schedule, but it looks like this one might. As a live theatre junkie, I have wondered whether you lose some of the immediacy and energy with these filmed productions, but I’m willing to give it a try. It’s a great way to get some great productions in front of a wider audience, and I actually know a couple of people who *prefer* these kinds of showings for opera.

    • Oh, it’s definitely worth a try, and I do wish officially filmed productions were more widely available, even just like this. (People are already calling for a DVD release which, given the popularity of the production, the National Theatre might actually do.)

      For opera? Because of subtitles, or because it’s much more accessible?

      • I think the advantage with opera is that it’s so expensive to get decent seats, and the filmed productions offer a better view.

  2. Oh, I think that’s way cool with the Frankenstein and Creature switch…I’d love to have seen that live, and been part of that energy. I should pick up this story again, too.

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