Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Great Live Theatre, Lesser Experience At a Distance


Royal National Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , April-15-11
Frankenstein by Royal National Theatre This satellite transmission of “Frankenstein” makes a fascinating contrast with the most recent, the Donmar’s “King Lear.” In the event several of the live performances of “King Lear” at Llandudno had to be cancelled due to Derek Jacobi’s illness. This makes the viewer’s gratitude to Aberystwyth and the other digi-venues in Wales all the greater.

As a live production “Frankenstein” must be astounding to watch. It is ironic that in the same month one film director gets mauled when he directs on one London stage, for the ENO at the Coliseum, while another is lauded for his brilliance. “Brilliant” is a word thrown around slackly but in this case its application to Danny Boyle’s production fits both figuratively and literally.

The vast stage is overhung by a canopy of lights, hundreds of them. When the Creature of Frankenstein’s experimentation is galvanised into life this great canopy surges with light in motion. Shortly afterwards a train roars on stage in a blast of steam. The music by electronic duo Underworld is capstone on this great theatre.

The two leads, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. For the performance chosen for transmission the former plays the Creature. A viewer, not a professional just a theatre fan, of the live performance described the first eight minutes as “extraordinary.” Jonny Lee Miller emerges from a kind of giant sac-like womb-egg. He collapses full-length. His fingers twitch trying to find a hold on the ground. In a long scene of jerks and grunts he acquires with pain and perseverance the power of motion. In the theatre the physical presence must be deeply, viscerally thrilling. In the cinema the camera intriguingly renders the viewer into just that, an observer.

Much has been made of the “relevance” of “Frankenstein.” Philip Ball, a good science writer and author of a recent book on cloning, features in a pre-showing mini-documentary. It is over-stated, even a little misleading. As Danny Boyle says James Whale’s film and its successors took away the Creature’s capacity to speak. In book and here on stage he learns and quotes chunks of “Paradise Lost.”

In preparation for the role the actors studied stroke victims, a tutelage clear in the performance. The Creature’s powerful articulation comes past a tongue that seems swollen and obstructing. Early on, as the Creature embarks on his quest of interpreting his world, he asks “What is love?” It is a question every human being has to ask. The need by the PR industry to relate it to today is not necessary. Metaphorically the Creature is no different from any other human being. His search for a place of refuge, the quest for love, the struggle to understand the world is universal.

Classic novels transferred to stage rarely come rightly structured. Helen Edmundson in her current adaptation of “Anna Karenina” has given Anna and Levin, who meet in one scene in Tolstoy, a whole series of dialogues. Nick Dear’s script is so structured that Frankenstein himself is absent for the first half of the action. Defenders of the novel have inevitably protested that too much from Mary Shelley has been omitted, in particular the perceived rage against social structures.

But an adaptor’s first obligation is to the stage. Drama needs a protagonist and “Frankenstein” focuses on the Creature’s pursuit of elemental need, those of companionship and love. The pain on the failure to achieve this is bitter. The end of the novel has been changed for the needs of theatre. The climax in the wilderness of ice north of Murmansk is breath-taking.

These satellite transmissions have been colossally successful; three hundred plus venues across the world, audiences of fifty thousand upwards. Aesthetically they are fascinating because the viewer is watching two art forms concurrently. “King Lear” had the rhythm of a Dreyer or Ozu film. The set had the same concentration of form that Lars von Trier applied to “Dogville.”

The director for “Frankenstein” has placed a camera overhead to capture the sheer scale of the stage and the audacity of the design. An image in true cinema is a composed entity within itself. Nothing exists outside the frame. But when the camera here is close in on the action the viewer is always aware of what is not being seen, that is human presence within a larger context.

“Frankenstein” remains at the level of intellectual observation, none the less richly rewarding, but an act of observation rather than emotional participation. It is image, not human presence. It is analogous, say, to seeing a great Vermeer or Renoir in reproduction. The camera can capture image but the texture of three dimensions eludes.

Prior to the performance the viewer is obliged to sit through a dreary piece of puffery. I have moaned before about theatre marketing and its tendency for a language that is both shallow and overblown. Here we are about to see the “hottest ticket in town.” Mary Shelley and her novel are reduced to the cliché of a “national treasure.” The unidentified deliverer is not even a theatre professional.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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