November 23, 2014

Frankenstein: Till Death Us Do Part

I was just a little bit two-faced for Halloween...
             I hope you all had a suitably ghoulish Halloween! I dressed up as a Day of the Dead sugar skull and was just a little bit two-faced…I did my make-up myself and only tried the look out for the first time on the 31st! I’m glad it turned out well and I spent my evening on a boat that cruised the River Thames. It was lovely to grab some air and see some sights from the top deck, the most impressive being everyone’s costumes!

             I know I’m a bit behind the power curve since Halloween has already been and gone and we’re on our way to Christmas now, but I would like to share how I kick started my Halloween with Frankenstein. It too deals with a myriad of two-faced behavior and all things nightmarish, a lot of those things being manmade (quite literally).

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated roles as Victor Frankenstein and his Creature in the stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's famous novel, photo courtesy of National Theatre Live
             Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, first exploded at the National Theatre in London in 2011. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated roles as Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Creature in this alternative rendition of Mary Shelley’s novel, adapted by Nick Dear. During that same year, the production was broadcast at movie theatres worldwide in association with the National Theatre Live program. Once again, Frankenstein ran for a limited time in 2012, with Encore screenings in 2013. Almost half a million people have flocked to movie theatres to watch the retelling of this famous tale.

             Just in time for Halloween, I was lucky enough to catch the rebroadcast of the production this year. Oh, what I would have given to see the production live! I suppose I am comforted by the fact that I only moved to London in 2012…Frankenstein was brought back by popular demand and it wasn’t hard to see why. The immense cult following surrounding Cumberbatch was already an indication that it was set to be a smash hit. However, I am a huge Miller as well as Cumberbatch fan. I found it interesting that they were cast together, especially since Cumberbatch is known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock and Miller plays his counterpart across the pond in the New York-based Elementary.

Miller (left) and Cumberbatch (right) as Victor Frankenstein, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             I quickly booked myself in for the October 30th and November 6th showings, the former starring Cumberbatch as Creature/Miller as Frankenstein and the latter starring Miller as Creature/Cumberbatch as Frankenstein. I wanted to compare the two, and as they were only spread a week apart, it gave me the perfect opportunity to witness how they tackled both characters.

             The most obvious thing to note would have been whether they were each better suited to a particular role. However, I am going to put this out there right now and say that I cannot tell you which viewing I enjoyed more, because they were both so different. Cumberbatch and Miller really added their own flair to what I saw as rather grueling roles.

Miller (top) and Cumberbatch (bottom) as Creature, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             Both viewings were surprisingly not as packed as I was expecting, but that kept the rustle of popcorn bags and indistinct chatter at an all time low. I think it’s important to mention at this point that before Frankenstein began, the audience was shown a clip that delved into the making of the production. Cumberbatch cited videos of stroke victims in recovery as his research to play Creature, while Miller tapped into his inner two-year old. These descriptions, in my opinion, clarified how the actors’ envisaged playing the characters. The different interpretations left me feeling different emotions towards the same character.

             What we can perhaps call a “birthing” scene was the intense opener, to say the least. Creature, the proof of Frankenstein’s craftsmanship, awoke in an awkward burst of movement and flailing. He emerged from where he was entrapped: a “womb-like” disc comprised of opaque material. The disc pulsed with the silhouette of a fully-grown man who came out wriggling like a baby. Then, in front of our eyes occurred an evolution: a transition from crawling to falling to stumbling to walking. When Frankenstein walked in on his creation, he cast him off because of his monstrous appearance.

The "womb-like" disc from which Frankenstein's Creature was "born," photo courtesy of National Theatre Live
             At the heart of Frankenstein is a very sad story. Having read the original book, I would claim that this production stayed true to Shelley’s intentions more than any of its predecessors. As the clip before the viewing expressed, Frankenstein the play gave Creature a voice. He has been previously conveyed as a monstrosity, someone to be feared, a character of the horror genre. Above all of that, however, he is a man who wants to be loved, which is a pleasure that no person should be denied in life.

             Creature entered the world as a blank slate, but he quickly became educated and acquainted with the ways of human nature. In the play, the only kindness he was shown was from a blind man whose opinions could not be swayed by the sight of him. When the man’s son and wife finally met Creature, they were not quite as welcoming. Abandoned by his creator, confused about his origins, and alone as society’s cast-off, is it any wonder that Creature developed a complex? He later goes on to burn, rape, kill, and manipulate.

The 1931 film Frankenstein, where Frankenstein's Creature does not speak, is just one example of how Shelley's character has been misrepresented, photo courtesy of IMDb 
             Viewing Frankenstein at a movie theatre rather than an actual theatre did not come without its advantages. The cameras focused on the right people and areas of the stage at the right time. This provided the audience with an all-access pass to the up-close emotions of Cumberbatch and Miller and their phenomenal make-up! The transformation took around two and a half hours to recreate each night. Hundreds of dimmer lights glowed and sparked on the ceiling. During particularly prominent scenes, the lights flickered in a surge of inspiration, as if to say, “Eureka!”

             Miller made for a cold and calculating Frankenstein. His portrayal of a crazed man obsessed with the genius of science counteracted Cumberbatch’s tamer, softer Frankenstein. Where Miller appeared deeply unconcerned about the relationships dissolving around him in the pursuit of his desire to create life, Cumberbatch still appeared torn and eaten up with remorse. In terms of the role of Creature, on the other hand, Miller was childlike and innocent, a performance which really pulled at the heartstrings. Miller was misunderstood and seemed to be driven by circumstances whereas Cumberbatch evoked less pity and acted with less naïvety, more brutality.

The impressive array of lights above the stage acted as a reminder of an all-important force: electricity, photo courtesy of National Theatre Live 
             I cannot even imagine how physically, nonetheless emotionally, taxing the roles were to play. It must have been exhausting for Miller and Cumberbatch to get into character, for both characters! Miller and Cumberbatch exposed their vulnerabilities on stage, proving just how good they are as actors. Creature was not born knowing how to walk or talk, so we followed the painstaking process with him as he learned. Miller and Cumberbatch both brought their own interpretation to Creature’s voice and also touches of humor to the role. Miller drooled and gurgled like a baby would, while Cumberbatch enunciated his words with a lisping choppiness.

             Above all, Frankenstein is a commentary about the cruelty of the world we live in and of human nature. Creature started life with all of the good in his heart and laughed at the grass, the sun, and the feel of the rain on his distorted flesh. Then, reality sank in, and evil penetrated his heart. All Creature wanted was a friend and the possibility of love. When Frankenstein asked Creature what he knew of love, Creature responded with a soul-destroying confession that he felt as if everything was bubbling up inside of him. Frankenstein responded with, “Is that what love feels like?,” which I found befitting, because surely Frankenstein knew no more of love than Creature. The only love Frankenstein came to know was the love of his scientific work, but not of human beings.

Miller and Cumberbatch's transformation took around two and a half hours to recreate each night!, photos courtesy of Simon Annand  
             In the tragic denouement of the story, Creature sought out Frankenstein and demanded that he make a female just like him. Frankenstein agreed, only to create and subsequently destroy the lifeless form before she even took her first breath. Creature then made it his mission to hunt down Frankenstein and rape and kill his wife in revenge. In a departure from the original storyline, the unlikely duo then traveled to the frigid North Pole together, both acting as the other’s purpose in life. When Frankenstein is destroyed, it is assumed that Creature will be destroyed too, and vice versa.

             In this twisted marriage, Frankenstein and his Creature are bound eternally until in death they will part. When people refer to the story of Frankenstein, often times the names of Frankenstein and Creature are muddled up. Indeed, Creature is usually called Frankenstein, but I think this aptly illustrates the attachment that Frankenstein and his Creature share. It as if they are one. Perhaps this is why the alternating of the actors’ roles worked so well in this production. They marvel at each other and hate each other for their sins, but they need each other. Allusions to God were made throughout the production as Frankenstein “played God” by creating life. Creature retorted that he felt bad for Satan, because he too was cast out just like Satan was of heaven. When Creature tasted bile, it was Satan’s bile.

Frankenstein and his Creature marvel at each other and hate each other for their sins, but..., photos courtesy of National Theatre Live
             The play ended on a very powerful scene as a cold and weak Frankenstein and a dominant Creature set off with a sled into a cloud of smoke. In a role reversal, the Master became the Slave. Then they departed, figuratively chained together in mutual loathing, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

             Despite demands from the public, there is currently no word of a DVD release for Frankenstein. However, due to that same public demand, I am sure this is not the last time the production will grace movie theatre screens. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled!

...they need each other, photos courtesy of National Theatre Live

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