THEATER REVIEW: 'Frankenstein' Live in HD at the Mahaiwe
Great Barrington, Mass.
March 27, 2011
LONDON’S NATIONAL THEATRE “LIVE IN HD”
ENCORE PRESENTATION ALTERNATE CAST OF
Adapted by Nick Dear
Starring Jonny Lee Miller (The Creature) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor Frankenstein)
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 27, 2011) – Riding the heels of one of the hottest careers in film, director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) returned to his original canvas, the English stage, a few months back to stage a new dramatization of the Mary Shelley classic, Frankenstein, adapted by playwright Nick Dear for London’s National Theatre. Anyone familiar with Boyle’s work in film, where he wears his technical and thematic obsessions on his sleeve, would instantly recognize this new Frankenstein – the hit show of the season in London, where every seat for every performance has been sold – as the handiwork of Boyle, who proves himself once again as a great visionary of the performing arts.
Oh, to have been sitting in the National Theatre on Sunday, and to experience firsthand the explosion of lights, the thundering of Underworld’s score, and the blood, sweat, and tears of Jonny Lee Miller, who played the Creature for this performance, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who played the role of Victor Frankenstein. The two alternate roles each night, which in this staging makes total sense, as Dear’s script emphasizes the unbreakable bonds between the two characters, who by the end of the two-hour play are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
While the production -- broadcast via satellite in real time to the audience at the Mahaiwe in hi-def sound and vision -- is a marvelous feat of stagecraft, with revolving platforms, disappearing sets, and ominous flashes of light and sound, the spectacle never overshadows the human dimensions of the age-old Promethean tragedy being played out and enacted by these two terrific actors and a terrific accompanying cast.
Miller is spectacular as the Creature throughout the show, but the first ten or fifteen minutes of the show should go down in theatrical history, as alone and without words he singularly reenacts the birth of man, literally popping out of a womb-like shell and slowly discovering his potential humanness in a segment that was as much modern dance as it was acting. Some credit presumably devolves to choreographer Toby Sedgwick, but Miller ultimately pulls off this brilliant feat, at once reminiscent of the “birth of man” sequence from 2001 and a real-life dramatization of the concept that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
This was not the Frankenstein of schlocky, mid-twentieth-century horror films. Rather, this was a Frankenstein worthy of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. Indeed, Shelley drew from the Greeks for her original novel, and in his emphasis on the tragic fate of the Creature, Nick Dear rightly returns to the title character his tragic dignity, pinning fault on an ultimately weak-willed Victor Frankenstein and blame on a hyper-rational Enlightenment world-view that would sacrifice humanism on the altar of science – a story as timely as ever, in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, a case of Frankensteinism run amok if ever there was one.
Live hi-def broadcasts from theaters, like those from opera houses, cannot be substitutes for experiencing live performances in the same room where they are taking place. But they are increasingly becoming a valuable resource and a way for artists to reach much wider and diverse audiences, limited by geography and relative wealth or lack of such. We are all the richer for efforts such as those of the Mahaiwe to bring this sort of programming to our community, where audiences can enjoy world-class performances as they occur in our relatively isolated outpost with state-of-the-art sound and light reproduction. It’s the next best thing to being there. And when being there is simply impossible, it is simply the best thing, as it was on Sunday.
Seth Rogovoyis Berkshire Living’s award-winning editor-in-chief and cultural critic.