27 March 2011


A few nights ago me and a friend went to see the National Theatre's version of Frankenstein. What was unusual was that instead of going down to London to see it on the stage, we saw it at a local cinema.
This broadcasting of plays in cinemas is a clever move on the part of the National Theatre. It makes plays accessible for a wider audience, including those who cannot easily travel and those who might not normally go to the theatre. I believe it is also being done with opera, which makes me think I might actually go and watch an opera, something I've never felt much urge to do before.

It was an interesting experience, sort of a hybrid of going to the theatre and the cinema, which is to be expected I suppose.
We were only just on time so ended up sitting right to the side, but that was fine because it was being projected onto a big 2D screen, so perspective and sight lines weren't the issue they can be at the theatre. Watching a filmed version allowed for things like close ups and overhead shots, but it also took away the audience's ability to notice things for themselves as your view was constantly led. It hadn't really occurred to me before, but this is a major difference between filmed and live performances.
The film included shots of the theatre audience taking their seats before the performance, which was nice as it recreated that thing where you look around at other people in the audience (well I do that in the theatre anyway, don't know about anyone else). You also heard the noise of the theatre audience, which merged with the sound of us in the cinema. At the end people clapped, which made sense in one way as that's what the theatre people were doing, but it was also a bit strange because there wasn't actually anyone there to clap for.

Directed by Danny Boyle, starring Johnny Lee Miller (from Eli Stone) and Benedict Cumberbatch (from BBC's Sherlock). In this performance Miller played the creature and Cumberbatch played Victor Frankenstein, but  the interesting thing about this play is that the two lead actors swap roles throughout the run.

The performance was very good. It is told from the creature's point of view and he is in almost every scene during the first part of the play. Escaping from some kind of artifical womb (no slabs here) we watch him learn to drag himself along, then crawl, then walk, all the while making unintelligible noises. It's eerily like watching a toddler in a grown man's body. The makeup made Miller look like he was covered in scars and stitches, especially some particularly bad scarring across his head. The first appearance of Frankenstein shows the scientist horrified by his creation and running away in terror, not a good start. Then the creature goes out into the world where he learns that he is feared before he learns to speak and read.
The actions switches to Victor Frankenstein only after his creation has tracked him down. The lonely monster makes a deal with his troubled creator, he asks only for a wife like him. The scientist, a reclusive character, once more leaves home and family to create life, however he is troubled by what he's dong and at the last reneges on his promise. Then the creature pursues Frankenstein to have his revenge.

I haven't read Shelley's original novel - although I expect I will do. From what I know of it the play is closer to the book than many of the film versions. In the films the monster often can't speak, but in the play he is allowed to be very articulate.

There were several things I liked about the production:
  • The blind man befriended and taught the monster, even after feeling his head to 'see' him. In a film version I saw a lonely blind man befriends the monster and says how bad it is to be alone and how they should be friends, but then rejects him after 'seeing' him. That seemed unfair.
  • The creature is the only one in the play to use a flaming torch, and he does it to burn down a human home. This seemed a nice reversal from the well-known film imagery.
  • Victor Frankenstein's social skills seem almost as bad as that of his creation, he is reclusive and doesn't seem to react to things as other people would. There is definitely something odd about the guy, even ignoring the whole creating monsters thing.
  • Frankenstein is initially as enamored with the idea of 'the bride' as the creature is. He seems to relish the idea of a second chance to make something flawless. I don't know whether he sees it as an intellectual challenge or something more. There's one bit where he pretty much measures up his fiancee, which is kinda creepy.
  • The scienstist's idea of creating life involves reanimating corpses with lightning. He doesn't seem to have given any thought to the normal way of doing it, as his wife points out. When he fears his creations will breed, it doesn't occur to him to simply make sure they can't. I suspect there are some pyschological, sexual issues at work.
  • Frankenstein projects his own worries and complexes about people onto the monster. The monster ignores them having his own very definite ideas about how people are.
  • By the end the creator and monster are pretty much the same. Both chasing each other, neither being able to stop or do anything else, both in a sense living for the other whilst also desiring their destruction.
  • The lighting rig. Suspended above stage and audience was a massive rig comprised of hundreds, if not thousands of bulbs. In the first scene these symbolise the lightning or electricity that brings the creature to life. They are also used to symbolise the stars. I though this was cool as I first heard about this production from the blog of author and lighting technician Kate Griffin.
I felt very sorry for the bride when creator and monster discussed her potential creation. The poor thing, had her destiny mapped out for her when she was nothing more than an idea, a wish and a fantasy. She would be made only to be a companion for the one that went before her. As I realised this I saw how very 'Eve made from Adam's side' it all is. She was the focus of two very flawed males and never got to achieve life at all. In the play she was paraded around to be looked at and admired but was then destroyed prior to her animation.
It also occurred to me that her identity is even less defined than that of the creature. She is commonly referred to as the Bride of Frankenstein, but that's erroneous, she's actually the Bride of Frankenstein's Monster. Her identity is entirely defined by her association to a creature who is also unnamed. She is two steps away from a name (as opposed to the Monster's single step) and the name is that of her creator and destroyer.

I see why people suspect Shelley was exploring feminist issues.

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