Tuesday, March 29, 2011

FRANKENSTEIN at the National Theatre

Last week I went to see Danny Boyle's production of Nick Dear's sold-out new play, Frankenstein, from the National Theatre in London -- as a matter of fact I went twice in one week, and I didn't even have to cross the Atlantic. The National Theatre continues to present HD broadcasts of some of their most popular presentations. They did it a couple of years ago for the first time when they presented Helen Mirren in Ph├Ędre by Jean Racine, and they are doing it again with this riveting adaptation of Mary Shelley's groundbreaking novel.

It's the kind of theatrical experience that has buzz written all over it. First there is director Danny Boyle, returning to the stage after spending the last two decades making a name for himself in the movies with Trainspotting, and winning Hollywood Oscar gold with Slumdog Millionaire, and winning critical acclaim with last year's 127 Hours. Then there is the cast, in particular the actors playing Doctor Frankenstein and his creature creation. In a bit of casting genius the two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller swap roles nightly. This is the kind of casting that makes theatergoers drool, and forces them to see the show more than once to savor how each actor approaches each character. This is what I did by attending two of the HD presentations, and I am convinced that this is the only way to fully appreciate this production.

Actor Benedict Cumbernatch, little known in America but a household name in the UK, is riding the wave of newly-found fame these days, and is clearly the chief drawing card for this production. He was the name on everybody's lips when the Doctor Who franchise went looking to replace the irreplaceable David Tennant as he finished his tenure as the Tenth Doctor. Cumberbatch's pale skin and chiseled David Bowie-like alien features would have made an ideal Eleventh Doctor. Instead, Cumberbatch remained near the Time Lord's orbit by being cast in the title role of Sherlock, a 21st century retelling of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle master sleuth by Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's current head writer.

Playwright Nick Dear turns Mary Shelley's gothic story into a Samuel Beckett-like existential confrontation between creator and creation. Danny Boyle's cinematic staging wonderfully supports this adaptation, which also includes idiosyncratic background music reminiscent of his latest films. The scene when the two characters meet at the summit of a mountain and the creature berates his maker and demands that he build him a mate is alone worth the price of admission.

If you manage to see this production twice I am sure that one of the evenings will stand out in your mind more than the other. Personally, I enjoyed the show a lot more when Johnny Lee Miller played the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch played Frankenstein. Why? Well, I enjoyed Miller's child-like creation over Cumberbatch's stroke victim monster. On the other hand, I marveled at Cumberbatch's Byronic, elegant and mysterious Frankenstein. Frankly, I did not care for Miller's huff and puff Frankenstein. On the other hand, watching Cumberbatch bring to life the Creature at the moment of his birth is one of the highlights of this theater season.

The bottom line is this: see the play twice, and watch two great actors at work!

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