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Even after revisiting the novel and reading Nick Dear's play, I was unprepared for the impact of seeing National Theatre Live's Frankenstein.

It's not a perfect script by any means, but what it does right, it does exceptionally well. And the adaptation to stage was marvelous.

All the praise I'd read about Benedict Cumberbatch's work - his amazing physicality, his stunning use of his voice, and his nuanced portrayal of the Creature's development of his natural rationality and soul - failed to do justice to his brilliant performance. It really was remarkable. I could fill up this entire post simply with words of appreciation for how beautifully he comprehended and in turn communicated the Creature's plight.

Jonny Lee Miller was quite good (if a little hoarse) as Victor Frankenstein. The dual/contrasting nature of the two lead characters was best underscored by the wholly different ways in which Victor and the Creature interacted with Elizabeth. Miller captured Victor's stilted, uncomfortable, unnaturally closed posture with her perfectly, and thus he brought great power to Victor's revelation at the end that he, unlike his Creature, didn't know what love was. The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Miller worked very well.

I noticed only a few changes between the published script version and the adaptation as performed. Victor's last words to Elizabeth on their wedding night changed from "I will try to love you, Elizabeth" to "I do love you, Elizabeth," although Miller's delivery (uncertain, as if he was trying to convince himself) made it clear that the original meaning remained. Also, the Creature's comment after the deeply poignant rape/murder scene changed from the rather weak "That was good" to the far more wrenching "I am a man"; not only had the Creature experienced sex, but he had lied, brutalized, stolen, and killed - in short, he was like other men now.

I found the Creature's scene with Elizabeth, in which he regretfully (lips trembling and eyes filling with tears) broke his word that he wouldn't hurt her, in mimicry of how Victor broke his word by destroying the Creature's mate, to be one of the very best in the play. (It's very telling that the Creature killed Elizabeth cleanly and quickly - humanely? - with a twist of her neck, whereas Victor butchered the Creature's would-be Bride and left her in bloody pieces.) Other stand-out scenes for me included the Creature's debates about original sin, knowledge, and his own poverty with his educator, the blind man De Lacey; the first confrontation between the Creature and Victor, in which the Creature requested a companion ("I am capable of logic. I do not think what I ask is immoderate?"); and the final scene between the two ("I would have loved you with all my heart. My poor creator.").

Yes, the play left out aspects of the novel (most notably, Henry Clerval). Yes, not all of the performances quite measured up to the high bar raised by the two leads. Yes, some aspects of the storytelling might have seemed disjointed to those unfamiliar with the literature. *shrugs* None of these issues diminished my enjoyment.

I was particularly impressed with the way the play handled the question of original sin (it's clear that the Creature is "born" innocent, with an innate desire to be good, and only learns evil from humans) and considered the Frankenstein/Creature, God/Creation relationship as one quite possibly of bad, even "unnatural" parenting (using Milton's Paradise Lost, as Shelley did, to great effect). The masterful and imaginative performances delivered on these ideas in the most moving of ways.

This was touted as the work that would restore the Creature's eloquent and agonized voice, and it delivers. I can't help but think Mary Shelley would be pleased.


Parting miscellany:
* There's a terrific gallery of more than 90 pictures of the play here.
* I bought the soundtrack. It's brilliant.

Victor: But this is remarkable! You are educated! And you have memory!
The Creature: Yes, I use it to remember being hunted like a rat, running from human places, finding refuge in the woods. I use it to remember being beaten and whipped. And I was good, I wanted to be good!

- Nick Dear's Frankenstein, based on a novel by Mary Shelley


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2011 06:38 pm (UTC)
Need I say how envious I am? Probably not. I'll just have to hope and pray that there will indeed be a recording of this, of both performances.

I know some people get disturbed by seeing different performances of roles, but I actually enjoy it. I like seeing what insight a different actor might bring to a character. So this production ... yeah.

Thanks for posting your reaction to it!
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:08 am (UTC)
I agree wholeheartedly about seeing different performances with different interpretations of roles. And since this adaptation, in particular, is playing with the notion of how these two characters are mirror images of each other, it seems especially relevant to see the same actor's interpretation of both roles.

Thanks for reading this! I'm not terribly coherent about it yet. It was rather overwhelming, to be honest. Like you, I'm keeping all of my crossables crossed in hopes of a DVD version.
Mar. 18th, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
I will say more articulate things later, but for now just let me say that Benedict's performance as the Creature was riveting. I agree that I could go on and on about just that. The first five minutes? Holy wow.
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:10 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I breathed during those first five minutes! I realized at one point that I was curling up in my chair, my whole body tensing as I watching him coming to terms with his own. I felt the same way when he was learning speech with De Lacey. "Riveting" is an excellent word for it! I look forward to your comments/review.
Mar. 18th, 2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
How I would love to see Benedict's performance.
Mar. 19th, 2011 12:11 am (UTC)
I really am hoping the DVD becomes a reality. Not only is it worth watching, it's most definitely worth rewatching. *fingers crossed*
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Mar. 19th, 2011 12:28 am (UTC)
It's incredibly moving. Just breathtaking. I do hope you enjoy it, too.

In case it helps you, I'll give you a bit more information about how explicit those scenes are (so spoiler alert! just for those scenes). Feel free to ignore this if it isn't useful:

I may not be the best person to speak to this, but I wouldn't be as concerned about the murder of Elizabeth; it's a blink-and-you'd-miss-it twist of the head to break her neck. In fact, it's purposefully quick and painless and clean, to contrast with the much bloodier and less humane dismantling of the Creature's would-be Bride by Victor. (For the actual destruction of the Bride, you only see the shadows of Victor working behind the screen, but you do see the bloody remains after he's finished, and it's enough to convince you that she's irreparable.)

The rape isn't gratuitous - it plays a crucial role in the plot - and I think it's done as tastefully (and, to be honest, as quickly) as possible. The Creature's fully clothed (unlike the opening scenes), and Elizabeth has her nightgown on, so all you see is her bare legs. It goes on just long enough that there's no doubt what's happening, but no longer, and then it ends with her death. Also, Victor storms in almost immediately, so part of the emphasis in the scene is on his reaction, too, and not just the act itself. It's presented as something incredibly sad and tragic, not sensationalized or titillating. You're also given clear cues as to when it's getting ready to take place (in fact, the Creature apologizes almost brokenly), so you don't have to worry that it's going to sneak up on you before you know it.

I hope this is useful to you! Forewarned is forearmed, and all that. :)

Edited at 2011-03-19 12:40 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2011 02:32 pm (UTC)
You're most welcome!
Mar. 19th, 2011 03:10 am (UTC)
Wow, that looks good.
Mar. 19th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
It was brilliant. I do hope they bring out a version on DVD. *fingers crossed*
Mar. 19th, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC)
Joining you in desperate hope that this will come out on DVD! It sounds utterly amazing.
Mar. 20th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, it is! And I'm going to be heartbroken if it doesn't appear on DVD.
Mar. 20th, 2011 05:34 am (UTC)
I'm fascinated by the "bad parenting" aspect; it struck me years ago that Victor's mental state after he gives life to his creature, and finds it unbearably hideous, sounds a lot like bad postpartum depression (I see that Mary Shelley had borne at least one child before the summer at the Villa Diodati).

The other subtext I see in the novel is a commentary on her father's criminological theories, as expressed (or so I understand) in his novel Caleb Williams. I have the impression that William Godwin was one of the very first people to say "I blame society": that is, to assert that the criminal is not born, and does not freely choose crime, but is driven to it by the cruelty of his society. From what you say about the "innocence" aspect it sounds as if some of that may have gotten into the play as well. Do you think that's the case?
Mar. 20th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, interesting! Very good points. I do see Godwin's influence, definitely, but I wouldn't go so far as to tie it that closely with a collectivist notion of society. If anything, I think the focus is personal responsibility (a theme she develops later so well in The Last Man). Maybe the Wollstonecraft influence?

Here's what I mean: It's very sad, and very telling, when general townsfolk demonize the Creature because he looks different. However, the betrayals that reshape his character are all personal in nature. I'd highlight three as being key:

1. Victor's abdication of responsibility as creator. As the Creature points out, he did not ask to be created. He was made without his consent. And yet, after Victor did make him (presumably taking on a responsibility by this act), he abandoned his creation when the Creature was as utterly helpless as a newborn, without food, shelter, or understanding. (Nick Dear's version goes on to suggest this is an unnatural shirking of responsibility, explicitly pointing out that the moral Elizabeth would not have abandoned the Creature.)

2. Felix and Agatha's rejection. It's a game-changer for the Creature when Felix and Agatha attack him and drive him away. What responsibility do they owe him? Well, first, they happily accepted his labor when he cleared their field of stones and routinely chopped their firewood. They also owed their father/father-in-law De Lacey a filial responsibility, living in his home under his authority, and it was his wish that they take in the Creature. So it's not a general mistreatment, it's a personal betrayal that teaches the Creature hatred.

3. Victor's destruction of the Bride. Victor and the Creature make a compact: they even shake hands on it! The Creature goes on in good faith, but Victor goes back on his responsibility and destroys the Creature's Bride. There's no higher court to whom the Creature can plead his case, no way to enforce this agreement. And that's the final straw.

So rather than blaming society as a whole, I suppose I'd say that individuals in society who abdicate their personal responsibilities seem to be to blame. Does that make any sense? This is off the top of my head. Obviously I'm going to have to give this more thought, especially as it relates to criminals, as you point out. It's a fascinating question, and I'm so glad you raised the issue. Thanks!

Edited at 2011-03-20 02:15 pm (UTC)
Mar. 20th, 2011 03:35 pm (UTC)
I can certainly see that side of the argument too. I think there's no question that it applies to Victor and his creature's troubled relationship. With Felix and Agatha, I'm not so sure. I've always taken their reaction to be meant not as an individual quirk but as a representative social reaction personified in the particular people the creature encounters; the business about his hewing their wood and clearing their field is a perfect symbol of "denial of the rights of labor," which was already starting to concern some people back then . . . see for example the other Shelley's "Song to the Men of England." And it's hard in a novel to bring "society" on stage without personifying it.

I think I'd need to read Caleb Williams to find out if a stronger case could be made for a Godwinian criminological theme, or if it would fall apart when confronted with the actual data.

Speaking of the other Shelley, there's an interesting thing about the novel: At one point in it, the creature explains to Victor that he does not eat flesh, but subsists on roots, shoots, fruits, and so on (the proverbial "nuts and berries"). I've read that Percy Shelley had renounced the eating of meat and had a limited diet as a result . . . but every so often he would go on a walking tour, staying in inns where he had to eat meat, and he would could back remarking on how much getting out into the fresh air had done for his health and energy. Ever since then I've had the persistent thought that Mary might have been taking a little poke at Percy by making the creature share his vegetarian diet.
Mar. 20th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I'll definitely have to give that more thought. Great food for musing here.

I hadn't considered the vegetarianism as poke at Percy (although goodness knows she had enough reason to make some! including his convenient hypocritical lapses, apparently - ouch!). I think it's fascinating that Ovid, Plutarch, and Milton - all of which are central to Frankenstein - have been interpreted as having positive vegetarian associations, and Romantics of the era considered the stories of Adam and Eve and Prometheus (again, clearly evoked in Frankenstein) as relating to the introduction of meat eating.

On a personal note, I find myself quite moved by the Creature's vegetarianism (being a vegetarian myself) and his weeping when he learns about the injustices done to American Indians (a subject near and dear to my heart, obviously). It was great to see a stage adaptation that really reflected the Creature's natural morality as shown in the novel.
Mar. 20th, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for the review, that was a very interesting read. I'm going to see it in London in a month or so's time, and it's great to hear how successful it's been.

I'm going with a friend, gayalondiel, who first saw it a couple of weeks ago, and she wrote what I thought was a great review here.
Mar. 21st, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
That is a great review! Thanks for the link.

I hope you have a fantastic time when you see it.
Apr. 14th, 2011 01:20 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for giving me the link to your review in the Whatever Wednesday post, I really enjoyed reading it, especially since the version I saw featured Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, so it was refreshing to see someone's point of view on the other performance.

Your review and the quotes you used from the play almost made me cry all over again (I was a weeping mess throughout the play. Hell, I started crying during the documentary), it brought back lovely memories and made me that much more excited about purchasing a copy of the play.

Also, I didn't know a "making of' documentary was being filmed, I am now very, very excited and will continue to wish for a DVD release of the two performances. Anyway, the news made my evening, thank you!
Apr. 15th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad this was of interest/use to you! I wish I'd had the opportunity to see Jonny Lee Miller's version of the Creature, too.

Your review and the quotes you used from the play almost made me cry all over again

I'm right there with you. I had the tissues out before the lights dimmed, and I needed them! The next day, I felt like I had an "emotional hangover," just from the intensity of the feeling (and, yes, the crying).

Since I posted this I've read some rumors that a DVD may not happen, but I refuse to give up hope at this point. It seems like such a natural thing to do; after all, even people who saw both performances would probably like the opportunity to watch a given scene back to back to compare them. And I get the impression people will be talking about/looking back on this production for a long time after it's gone. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

The soundtrack's amazing, by the way. Just breathtaking. It's incredible how hearing it reminds me instantly of certain moments in the play, pulling me right back into the experience.

Thanks for your lovely comments! It's great to get to share the experience of this with others who've enjoyed it, too.
Jun. 8th, 2012 04:51 am (UTC)
Came over here from green_key's page - hope you don't mind. Thank you so much for this. I've just seen both performances for the first time, and I was really so very impressed by them. Thanks again for the cogent review.
Jun. 8th, 2012 12:41 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so glad you loved the performances, too. The play is quite an achievement, isn't it?
Jun. 8th, 2012 02:19 pm (UTC)
It honestly was. It distilled everything that was really important to me in the book and made it accessible and relevant, and wrenched at my heart without being manipulative. I adored it.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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