National Theatre Live

Last night I experienced London theatre in a way I never imagined I would: sitting in a cinema here in the US. It’s through a program called Fathom Events. Their shows are often advertised before the usual movies seen at the cinema and most of the time they feature opera from the Met. Last weekend, however, they advertised a play and it caught my eye and so I asked a friend to join me.

The play? Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s tale of a modern Prometheus adapted for the stage by English playwright Nick Dear. The novel itself is one of my favourite from my college days, but I’m not sure why I like it so much. The play was staged at the National Theatre last year and during two of the performances, the two main roles – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (currently staring as the BBC’s Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (currently appearing in the American film Dark Shadows) – were alternated between the two actors. They recorded the play twice: once with Cumberbatch as the doctor and Miller as the Creature and once with Miller as the doctor and Cumberbatch as the Creature. We saw the first pairing.

I may not know why I like the novel so much, but I do know why I liked the play. For the first 5-10 minutes of the play, the focus is entirely on the “birth” of the Creature – he comes forth from a membranous pouch as if he truly is being born – and his first moments alive and learning how to walk. It was a phenomenal portrayal and I feel confident that Miller spent a lot of time studying toddlers who are just learning to walk and move on their own. Every move, every frustration, was clearly evident as he struggled as a child struggles and still had no means to communicate his feelings beyond sounds. Even as he progressed into a being that could comprehend as we do, think as we do, communicate as we do, he still embodied the frustrations of not quite being normal. He could talk, but did so as an individual with some palsy of the face so that he constantly drooled and still had bodily ticks that reminded the viewer that he wasn’t born as we all are, but was rather created from the parts of different people. Throughout most of the tale he retained that childlike wonder of something as simple as snow even as he shouted the frustrations of not understanding how memories work or how you can just “know” something happens because you see it happening.

Cumberbatch also did well in his role as the Dr. Victor Frankenstein, at once repulsed by his creation (he runs away at their first encounter) and yet also intensely proud that he could become like God and create life from nothing. That is the true focus of the story and Cumberbatch, in my opinion, pulls it off amazingly well.

I’m glad I took advantage of this unique and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience, I just wish it hadn’t been shown during the week. I was shattered by the time I got  home.



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