Friday, May 06, 2011

Theatre (sort of): Frankenstein

(I'm catching up - partially, slowly - on an embarrassingly long string of blog posts that are sitting on the system in incomplete draft mode. Hence the age of this one)

National Theatre, London, transmitted to the Arts Cinema, Cambridge, 24/03/2011

Another live broadcast from the National Theatre to the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, and this time it's the hot ticket of the London theatre season - Nick Dear and Danny Boyle's stage treatment of one of the key modern myths. Which turned out to be pretty good and quite well suited to high-definition broadcast to cinema, with a certain amount of playing with camera angles and viewpoints, and enough chances to observe the stage design, especially the giant chandelier laden with as many different types of light bulb as someone could find.

It was all a pretty consciously stagey sort of production, with a consciously brave wordless extended opening  scene as the creature was born, a brief outburst of steampunk as it encountered some horrified urban proles, and lots of colourblind casting. One problem, perhaps, was that Jonny Lee Miller looked merely rugged and a bit scarred as the creature, while everyone who met him was obliged to react as though he was some kind of nigh-Lovecraftian abomination; even given the level of abstraction in the visuals, I found it hard to suspend disbelief quite enough there.

But we all know that the monster is hideous, don't we? Like I said, modern myth. It's been a while since I read the novel, and once or twice I found myself trying to remember whether some elements came from there, or whether they'd sneaked in from the films - the elderly exiled intellectual in the woodland cottage is in the book, of course, but was he originally blind? Actually, yes - Dear follows Shelley quite faithfully in that scene, but in so doing, can't help but remind audiences of the movies (including Young Frankenstein). No great matter, to be sure, but it's all a  reminder of the potential complexities involved in adapting a text as time-crusted as this one.

But yes, Dear's script did cleave to the core myth fairly well throughout- although it always seems a shame that Robert Walton, the Arctic explorer, so rarely makes it into adaptations, even when, like this one, they end in the Arctic. (The absence of that observer made the ending a bit anticlimactic, I'm afraid.) The one rather jarring and consciously "modern" - though actually rather dated-seeming - inclusion was some pointedly feminist stuff about Frankenstein being a heartless male scientist who needed to pay more attention to nice intuitive feminine ethics, or at least to listen when his fiancée asked if she could learn about his work. Okay, okay, so Mary Shelley has a significant part in feminist history, and certainly, if you look at Frankenstein's behaviour at all seriously, he treats Elizabeth abominably - but if you're going to treat that relationship at all logically, then there's no good reason for her to put up with him at all (apart from the dominant influence of the rest of the family). The only effect of this added stuff, for me, was a sense of 1970s right-onnery lurching into the middle of this Georgian gothic-romantic lunacy.

Probably, in fact, the production should have gone all-out for gothic effect, and forget any attempts to inject a modern moral consciousness or to explore the relationship between creator and creature. (Benedict Cumberbatch was more than fine as Victor, by the way, leaving me curious as to how the alternate-nights presentations, with him as the monster and Miller as Victor, played out. The idea felt wrong, but that may just say something about Cumberbatch's skill as an actor.) Mary Shelley was being entirely morally serious, yes, but on a topic which has been thrashed out every which way and tackled by two hundred years' worth of political thinkers and science fiction writers. At the risk of sounding all post-modernist, it really isn't the same story now that it was then, even if you tell it in the same words.

But it's a story that's survived for a good reason, and it's always interesting to watch experts having another go at this sort of thing. And nice to see technology being expertly and benevolently applied to bring it to a wider audience.

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