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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Monsters, Boobies, and OCD: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein at the National Theatre

Sadly, we are not in the UK, but we did just return from The Music Box Theatre where we saw the last show they're broadcasting there. The title is the ZK's review.

This has been getting rave reviews, lines around the block for day-of tickets, and so on. In many ways, the production deserves that and more. I liked it, but did not love it.

Every element of the design and staging is incredible. The stage is round with a central revolve, and overhead, there's a fixture comprising hundreds of lightbulbs. They're gathered in bunches, hung at different lengths, and it's at once oozing and organic and cold and artificial, evoking forges, power plants, and circuses. To represent the creature's first stumble into a town, there's this gliding platform topped with huge gears that rotate. Extras hang from the front and sides, jerking, slamming, writhing, and do-si-do-ing to something too clanging and brittle to be music, too patterned and hypnotic not to be. It's like Steampunk and German Expressionism had a Marxist-informed Baby.

The blind scholar's hut is represented by four scrimmed walls with a few natural elements stenciled on them; the Frankenstein home is all stiff, stuffy windows and shadow, but it churns up from beneath the stage and sits at a subtle angle. Victor's hut in Scotland has an appropriately claustrophobic, subterranean feel.

The monster is scarred, sutured, scabby, and oozing. The development of his movement, command of language, and command of . . . consciousness and self-awareness . . . are all stunning. The production we saw had Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor (the two leads swap roles each night). Both occupied their roles in a way that signals and excellent director and a creative process that's hard to achieve where actor and character are constantly growing and stretching. Really fantastic.

Oh, look! It's my "but" face. Charitably, Nick Dear's script is uneven, which is not to say that there aren't brilliant parts of it where Mary Shelley's text is illuminated, enlarged, and brought to life by the adaptation. But then there are parts that are just . . . clunky as shit: Felix and Agatha (the blind scholar's son and daughter-in-law) have awkward Tolstovian orgasms about having cleared all the rocks from their field; the Scots resurrectionists have painfully stilted attempts at Shakespearian comic relief; and Elizabeth lectures Victor on the God-given, societally approved power of her uterus. No, really.

Elizabeth, in general, is a nightmare. Boyle casts all the Frankensteins, save Victor, as actors of color for no reason that is particularly apparent (which is not at all to say that I think the actors ought to have been all white in some misguided attempt at authenticity, but Victor's whiteness becomes pointed). George Harris was simply not very good as Victor's father, although I wonder if his wooden delivery was directed that way, so that we remain entirely within the mind of Victor/The Creature.

Naomie Harris's portrayal of Elizabeth is almost beside the point as a performance. Her character is the victim of the worst of the script and a choice that came within a hair of ruining the whole shebang for me. As through the vast majority of the play, the action stays with the Creature, who springs from Elizabeth's bridal bed and has a conversation with her that, at times, almost salvages an otherwise dreadful scene. Then, unlike the book in which Victor hears a scream and comes across Elizabeth's lifeless body, Dear/Boyle have Victor burst into the room, revolver drawn (if you will) only to flail around on the floor for no apparent reason while the creature rapes Elizabeth, achieves orgasm, snaps her neck, and declares, "Now I am a man."


Extra special bonus points not just for going to the "Women Exist For Men to Use in Their Attempts to Exert Power Over Other Men" Well, but going the extra mile and making the woman non-White. Seriously, just what the fuck?

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it really, truly is a magnificent creative endeavor beautifully brought to life. But I'd consider nipping out for popcorn at strategic moments.

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