Amy H. Sturgis (eldritchhobbit) wrote,
Amy H. Sturgis

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Frankenstein via National Theatre Live, Revisited

I just took advantage of the glorious opportunity to see the encore screenings of the National Theatre's Frankenstein (play by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the roles of the Creature and Frankenstein). I first saw it last year.


These are my initial impressions of the Cumberbatch-as-Creature cast, including comparisons between Nick Dear's play as written and as performed.

Here are my thoughts on the differences between the Cumberbatch-as-Creature and Miller-as-Creature casts.

First of all, the lead performances in both versions were stunning. Absolutely stunning. I can't say this loudly or often enough. That said, my personal preference is for Cumberbatch's interpretation of the Creature and Miller's interpretation of Frankenstein. It comes down to the question of consistency, really. (I'll refer to the actors as BC and JLM, for the sake of convenience.)

BC and JLM had very different interpretations of the Creature. BC played him as a being cobbled together from the pieces of the dead, and it followed that he focused his research for his movements on injury victims who were trying to learn how to get their bodies working again. JLM played the Creature as a baby/rapidly-aging child, and it followed that his research focused mostly on his then-two-year-old-son. This contrast was made manifestly clear in the opening sequence; BC's Creature staggered, badly uncoordinated, clearly swept along by his own momentum; if he stopped, he'd fall flat on his face. JLM's Creature rocked on the ground, discovering his own body, at one point drawing his foot to his mouth and chewing on it.

The result of these differences in approach is that, once BC's Creature learned speech, he remained fairly consistent throughout the rest of the play. He was damaged goods, at the level of his very nerves and cells. JLM's Creature, on the other hand, "grew up" and shed much of his physical/verbal "strangeness," and the signs of those things - a stutter, a spasming of his leg, a nervous tick in his jaw and chin - only reappeared toward the end at moments of extreme distress.

Of the two, I strongly prefer BC's interpretation, which maintained the Creature's "Otherness" throughout. Sometimes JLM appeared rather inconsistent, more like a merely ugly person than a new life form, and I'm sure that's in part because of the premise from which he was working.

One of the scenes that's most pivotal to me is the bedroom scene between the Creature and Elizabeth. BC's Creature visibly had tears in his eyes and trembling lip as he apologized to her for what he was about to do, and he seemed to go through the mechanics of the rape for its symbolism as an act of revenge, although it pained him. JLM's Creature made the apology like something he knew he should do (without tears), and seemed to take animal pleasure in the act (which was longer and more graphic) before then showing genuine remorse.

To put it another way, BC's Creature seemed like a Good Man who Falls (or is pushed, as it were) and bitterly mourns the fact, whereas JLM's Creature seemed like an Innocent who becomes Disillusioned (and thus Angry). If that makes any sense.

That said, JLM's Creature was remarkable in the scene with his would-be Bride; he stood beside her, holding her hand, screwing up his eyes and nearly hyperventilating as he waited to hear Victor Frankenstein's decision about her. Very powerful.

As for Victor himself, the interpretations again were different, though more subtly so. I feel JLM was done a bit of a disservice, because his Victor was taped when he obviously was very hoarse, and so he came across as perpetually rather "shouty" just so his lines could be understood. His JLM felt very, very focused to me, holding an intense and even note - as I say, consistent. BC's Victor vacillated between moments of great hubris and moments of great doubt, and that made him quite sympathetic at times (more so than JLM's), but also a bit hard to pin down.

When JLM's Victor told the Creature to look down at the town, with its "little men, with little lives," he was stating a cold scientific observation; BC's Victor was openly sneering in contempt. When JLM's Victor told Elizabeth he loved her, he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself; when BC's Victor said it, he meant it, and it was an anguish to him. When Elizabeth kissed JLM's Victor, he didn't kindle for her, but he wished he could; BC's Victor was genuinely tempted and aroused, and had to pull himself away and remind himself of his priorities.

JLM's Victor was more thoughtless, oblivious even, out of his emotional depth, than cruel. BC's Victor had real moments of cruelty. When he realized he could exhibit a female Creature, his voice dropped an octave, and the audience had no doubt he would go back on his word. Later, when he asked what the Creature would do if the Bride "wants to live with a Man, not a Monster," he dipped her suggestively, pressing against her, undulating with her, as if suggesting he could "perform" where the Creature couldn't.

Two of Victor's key lines in particular worked better for me with JLM. When Victor asked the Creature what it feels like to love, and the Creature gives his wrenching description, JLM's Victor choked up and asked "Is that what it feels like?" as if he wished he knew and was well aware that he didn't. BC's Victor asked in an abstract kind of way, as he was already clearly a step ahead in his plan on what to do to the Bride.

Another example: when the Creature called Victor on the fact Victor didn't anticipate that he would have feelings, BC's Victor brushed him off by saying he was "an equation, a theorem," nothing more. Next question? JLM's Victor made it an accusation, an indictment with a weighty pause, and the audience gasped, both from his delivery and the obvious impact the blow had on BC's Creature.

BC's Creature hit every note I was looking for from this script, and I simply cannot say enough glowing things about his performance. He was the being who wanted to be good, the being capable of reason and logic, but love and empathy as well, and his Fall is deeply tragic because of it. (An example: the Creature explained to Elizabeth that he was good at assimilation, because from men he had learned "how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate." JLM's Creature makes this an angry list, rapidly spoken. BC's Creature lingered on each one, mourning over it. That entire scene for BC was particularly spectacular.)

Through my recent viewings I also gained new appreciations for the complexity of Nick Dear's script, from the repetition of "We can only go forward, we cannot go back" motif, to the delicate use of the snow and the solitary moon as symbols throughout the work. It's a great achievement, this play, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to experience it.

"All I wanted was your love. I could have loved you with all my heart. My poor creator."
- The Creature to Victor Frankenstein, Nick Dear's Frankenstein
Tags: frankenstein, gothic, sf

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