NATIONAL THEATER LIVE PRESENTS DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN (2011)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Starring Johnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, & Naomie Harris
Showing at the Music Box Theater, Chicago IL this week.
I can’t count the number of different versions of Mary Shelley’s classic I’ve seen through the years, but the version I had the pleasure of witnessing last Wednesday night at Chicago’s Music Box Theater was by far one of the most well produced, well written, well acted versions of the tale I’ve ever seen. Danny Boyle’s name on anything is an automatic guaranteed butt in the theater seat for me. What I didn’t know was that Boyle started out directing theater. This experience directing for the stage shows as Boyle puts together a tale of Frankenstein and his monster the likes of which the world has never seen. What makes this version better than all the rest? You can break it down into four reasons; a phenomenal script, a gorgeous stage, a big budget production and a director who knows how to maximize that budget, and last but not least a cast that brings life to the characters like few have before them.
Let’s start with the production and stage. Though this is a stage performance, the audience will not feel the normal trappings of one. You’d swear you were seeing the hillsides and castles of Geneva or the bitter slopes of the North Pole. Played out on a circular rotating stage which rises and falls as it changes acts, the play seamlessly moves from one scene to the next. Though the set design goes simple, it never feels like a cheat. The minimalist design only highlights the other strengths of the production.
Boyle’s influence is everywhere in this play. His ingenious way of unfolding a story and amping it to a visual apex is present even with a bare circular wooden stage and an electric candelabra chandelier sparking above to signify the bolts of electrical life. Boyle enriches the story with symbolic shapes and curves. The stage is skewed even during the most intimate moments between Frankenstein and his lovely bride to be Elizabeth, making even that conversation rich in tension and teetering on the brink of insanity. The camera work is mostly pretty simple, highlighting the stage and the people on it. Though this is a broadcasted production, it still feels like you are in the audience at a playhouse in England, witnessing it with those present.
The performers Johnny Lee Miller (TRAINSPOTTING, DEXTER) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who I’ve never seen before, are fantastic. The actors switch roles from one performance to the next, so one never knows which version of the monster and which version of Victor Frankenstein you’re going to get. In the version I saw, Johnny Lee Miller played Victor and does so with an amount of depth that I’ve rarely seen in any of the onscreen versions. Miller’s Victor is cold, dedicated, and cruel, yearning to create life to fill some kind of hole in himself. But the true standout for me was Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, who plays the role with equal parts menace and sorrow. I’ve never felt so moved by a performance of the Monster and yes that includes Karloff and Lee’s versions. Cumberbatch plays the Creature as a palsied misfit soul in search of a place in a world that won’t accept him. Cumberbatch’s physical performance is engrossing to watch as his movements resemble that of a stroke victim not in complete control of his body more than a stiff legged brute. Rounding out the main players of the cast is Naomie Harris who starred as the bad ass machete wielding survivor in 28 DAYS LATER. Here she embodies innocence and purity without being over-saccharinated. Harris delivers a sense of decency and sincerity that is on par with the caliber of the two stars.
To me, though, the highlight of this production was Nick Dear’s script which boils Shelley’s novel down to the basics and creates a narrative that is utterly original, yet adheres to the source material. The film opens not with Victor lamenting in his lab, but with an extended birth sequence as the Creature bursts from a man-made womb, writhes on the floor, learns to crawl, then walk, then run right before our eyes. Though this opening sequence goes on a bit long, the transformation from helpless newborn to running beast is an astounding silent communication of the Creatures quick leaps through early development. Unlike previous versions, the Creature evolves through the story into an articulate speaker, learning to speak and read and think. There’s an especially effective scene between the Creature and Victor that explains love in such a rich and poetic manner that it makes most love stories pale in comparison. This scene beautifully highlights the vast chasm between a monster who understands love yet cannot have it and his ruthless maker who has love but knows nothing about it. The final scene of this performance hit me like a sledge hammer and highlighted the relationship between monster and maker/father and son like I’ve never before seen in a FRANKENSTEIN story.
This production is being broadcast three more times in Chicago at the Music Box Theater (Saturday April 30th at 2:00pm, Wednesday May 4th at 7:30pm and next Saturday May 7th at 2:00pm) before it moves on to its next city on the tour. If you’re in the Chicago area and are even a casual fan of Frankenstein, you must see this production. Tomorrow’s performance has Cumberbatch playing the Creature again while next week’s performances have Johnny Lee Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor. I think I’m going to check out next week’s show and offer a review of the flip side to this performance in next week’s column (which will have a focus on Frankenstein movies!). After seeing this performance, though, Cumberbatch’s Creature is going to be hard to beat.
DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN is by far the best translation of Shelley’s story I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see Boyle bring this version to the big screen. As is, this projected performance live from London is simply amazing from start to finish. If you’re in Chicago, you’re a fool if you miss it. And if you’re lucky enough to have it stop near your burg next, seek it out. You won’t see anything like it and you won’t see Shelley’s classic done any better.