Monday, April 4, 2011

Measure of a Man: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

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
Dear and Boyle have for once gone back to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, a novel where the monster speaks, is articulate, well-read, intellectual and, well, monstrous. This is no bolts-in-the-neck shambling beast. Since the novel, and the play, is about partially the duality between Victor Frankenstein and the Monster, Boyle had the blisteringly obvious, but risky, idea of having the play's two leads switch roles night after night. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes in the new BBC series Sherlock, reviewed here by Mark Clamen) and Jonny Lee Miller (best known prior to this for Trainspotting and for being Angelina Jolie's first husband), it all depends on what night you attend just who you will see in what role. The night I went, Miller was the Monster and Cumberbatch was Victor. Why this is risky is that if the actors aren't up to the task of switching roles night after night, you might be stuck with half a great show. Fortunately, Miller and Cumberbatch are, from all reports, completely up to the challenge (for obvious reasons, I cannot comment on Cumberbatch as the Monster and Miller as Victor). On the night I saw it, Miller was devastatingly brilliant and moving as the hated, damaged Creature, while Cumberbatch was unnerving in his single-minded focus on his ego.

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
Over the next fifteen minutes, Miller is dazzled as he discovers the world he lives in (his reaction to his first dawn, rainfall and birds is touching as he hoots with joy). What makes his performance work so well was the exaggerated movements created by Toby Sedgwick and how he uses his voice (he speaks, when he starts to be articulate, as someone who has re-learned to talk after suffering a stroke). At first, it is a series of grunts and groans, laughs and gurgles (not unlike a baby – at one point, he even chews his foot just as a baby does). Trying to connect to people, he is threatened and beaten. He finally finds himself in the cabin in the woods where a blind old man lives with his son and daughter-in-law. Off during the day, they don't know of the creature’s existence. Over the next year (told in two or three scenes), the blind man teaches the Monster to talk, read and think. After much cajoling, he convinces the creature to finally meet his children. He is convinced that they will like him as he does; he is tragically wrong.

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
The production is not flawless. There is a rushed quality to the scenes with the blind man, so you are somewhat unclear as to how much time has passed. One act of kindness that the creature does for the blind man's children is also not clear until much later. There are some issues, too, with the secondary roles. I have never had a problem with colour-blind casting and Boyle has embraced it here. You want the best actor, regardless of ethnicity, for every role. Victor's father and brother are played by black actors, as is his fiance, Elizabeth. Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) is wonderful in the role. She brings a sweet, caring understanding to her part, but she's never weak; George Harris (so good as Kingsley Shacklebolt in various Harry Potter films), as Victor's father, is unfortunately as stiff as the high collar he is forced to wear. His performance was so drab that it constantly threw me out of the production, questioning in my mind why he was cast.

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.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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