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Last night I saw the National Theatre Live performance of Frankenstein, as broadcast live to cinemas across Europe. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and John Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein. (They alternate, so another version has been filmed and may be aired later.)



Well, first of all, let's put one thing straight. No, you don't get to see Benedict's intimate bits. For the live broadcast he was wearing a loin cloth. And to be quite frank, I didn't mind. I often find that when an actor is naked on stage the illusion of acting is lost. Seeing that person's penis/vagina catapults you back into reality and suddenly you see just the actor, naked on stage, not him/her playing a role. But this is a sidetrack.

The play starts with The Creature being born, bursting forth out of a sort of membrane (simulating a womb?) and falling onto the ground. He gradually learns to stand up and then to walk. He discovers nature, hears birds, feels grass (and eats it), dances in the rain. But he also discovers humans' cruelty, for everyone he meets shuns him and chases him off, often brutally. Even his creator, Victor Frankenstein, tells him to leave.

Eventually he meets a blind man, De Lacey, who befriends him and teaches him to speak and to read books. He develops into something he himself calls "a good man" and he begins to learn about human feelings like love.

Well, of course it all ends badly. The Creature is horrible to look at and no-one wants to accept that he has a good heart. He begs Victor to create a female, so that he can have a friend, a wife, which Victor first complies to, seeing himself almost as a god. But he breaks his promise and so The Creature begins a tour of destruction, killing people in his way, among them Victor's beautiful bride Elizabeth who is really the only one to show him affection and respect.

(ETA: The scene in which he first rapes and then kills Elizabeth was one of the play's key highlights, in my point of view. Up until then he has always wanted good things, to be kind and to be loved. But here he says: "And finally I have learned to lie." And in one chilling instant we all realise what he is about to do, seeing the horror in Elizabeth's eyes too.)

Meanwhile, Victor looses more and more of his sanity and at the end of the play he and his creation are almost the same. Shunned by society they chase each other across The Antarctic, Victor desperate to destroy The Creature and The Creature desperate for Victor's love.

So, Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature. What did I expect? And what did I get?

I'm not sure what I expected, having read a few reviews and seen other people's comments on his performance. Someone said he is a very cerebral actor, which is true. He likes to do his research. For this role he met people who had suffered physical traumas through accidents or illness to study how they re-learned walking and talking. And I think it showed in how he portrayed his Creature.

I found it very moving and realistic how, in the beginning, his whole body was fighting for control to be able to stand up, to walk. I loved the look on his face when rain came pouring down (how do they do that on stage? and where does the water go?). It was filmed from above in the broadcast, an ingenious thought, something that the audience in the London theatre didn't get to experience.

Throughout the play he maintained certain ticks or gestures, showing he was still not quite in command of his own body. It was quite brilliant.

I remember especially one scene, in which he recounts learning about the four seasons. He accompanied this by jumping four times clockwise, visually showing how he saw the seasons change.

So to me, being a cerebral actor isn't a bad thing. It means his approach to learning a new part is very serious and thorough. It means something to him to be able to portray a person in a realistic way, showing respect to their disabilities and not making it into a caricature.

Unfortunately, I won't have the opportunity to see John Lee Miller's version of The Creature as it seems it won't be aired here in Sweden. It would have been very interesting to compare the two.

The alternate version with JLM as The Creature was actually filmed earlier the same day, which I think would account for the fact that he was more than a little hoarse. At times he also seemed very out of breath. I suspect his portrayal of Victor has more bounce to it on other nights when he is more rested. I lacked details in his performance. He just seemed a little tired.

The other actors really didn't get much time to shine. Perhaps it was the script, perhaps it was just for lack of time to be able to crunch as much of the book into the 2,5 hours (without a break!) of the play. Or show. Yes, maybe show is a better word. It was quite spectacular at times!

But all in all, a wonderful experience. I wanted to see it again almost immediately afterwards. And yet, it was almost too much to take in.

Let's hope there will be a DVD release eventually!

October 2014

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