Now, for those of you who are still here: here's a pretty sweet production video to get us started off right.
Right, so picture this: you're at the National Theater in London, in the nosebleed seats (which are good seats, for all that), looking down on a big round stage, with one or two platform ‘legs’ jutting out into the audience. Moody red lights play over it and the curved wall behind. Maybe a thousand incandescent lightbulbs hang over the stage, all shapes and sizes, swirling out in a sort of electric galaxy. Nothing onstage yet but a giant bell (rung every 5 minutes for the last 15 before the show starts) hanging from the electric ceiling, and what looks like a big leather gong, sitting off to stage left.
The enormous bell rings a last time, the house lights go down, and then you realize that the gong is moving. Writhing around, actually, as if something inside is trying to escape – and you realize it’s not a gong. It’s a womb. The light bulbs flicker and buzz into life, here and there, as the writhing intensifies, and then they all burst into loud, explosive light as a misshapen and bloody naked man rips his way out of the leather.
There was more to the play than the first twenty minutes, I promise. And it was all quite brilliant. But the first twenty minutes were heart-stopping.
Family-friendly words cannot express how fine of an actor it takes to pull off what this guy accomplished in the show’s opening, during which we watched him, the Creature, discover himself, learn to walk and be rejected by his creator. How does a stark naked, incomprehensibly grunting man hold an entire audience breathless and make them forget to notice that he’s naked? How should I know? But he did it.
It felt like a good half hour into the play before we heard any real words, aside from Victor Frankenstein’s “Oh my God! It lives!” at the beginning – until then, we’re following the Creature as he discovers the world. After that, it was a bit of a shock to see the clothed, clearly-speaking workmen he encounters (and steals clothes from), and the railway workers he runs afoul of after that (among them being a completely pointless and unexplained whore, who propositions our Creature, with predictably confused and horrified results – relevance?).
For those who know the story, the show doesn’t do a bad job of sticking to it, reasonably trimming a few of the more wander-y details and subplots (including the framing device, thank goodness) to keep it inside of two hours. But the Creature’s moral education, hunting of Frankenstein, request for a bride and subsequent revenge quest are all very much retained.
This performance was one of the field trips with my British Life class, and on the way home afterwards, a few of us had a good bit of discussion over sympathy for the Creature vs. Victor Frankenstein. Interestingly, the two actors who played them took turns every night – so, one night, one of them got to do that exhausting ‘birth’ scene, and the next night, the other did. (As a good theatre student, it occurred to me that I should go see the show again with the reverse casting, but honestly, one time with this experience was enough for me. I could also go into a great, gushing riff about how, directorially, this back-and-forth playing was a stroke of Absolute Brilliance, but my stage directing opinions are probably a subject best reserved for a later post.)
At first, your sympathies are with the Creature. Did he ask to be born, abandoned, hideously disfigured? No. Was Frankenstein a bit of a moron to run home to Daddy and just hope that his little science project wouldn’t return to haunt him? Yes. And maybe things would stay that simple if the aforementioned moral education didn’t take place – if the Creature never came across the old man who taught him right, wrong, some fairly advanced philosophy, and (arguably) how to lie. But the Creature has been taught all of these things, and thus reached a certain ‘age of responsibility,’ if you like, before he begins murdering people. Including Frankenstein’s five-year-old brother. “It was the only way I knew to get you to talk to me,” he tells Victor, and maybe that’s true, but by this point, the ugly is definitely more than skin-deep.
It’s with the whole ‘brides’ turn, though, that the horror really starts to get to you. Frankenstein seems to ‘give in’ to the Creature’s plea, and builds him a bride – impossibly beautiful, rather than the equally ugly he asked for, but no matter, he’s overjoyed to have her – then destroys her before his eyes, as revenge for his brother’s death. The fool doesn’t have the wit to kill the Creature, though, with the result that on his wedding day – while he’s out setting guards around the house – his new wife, Elizabeth, the only one who ever spoke kindly to the Creature, is raped and murdered by that Creature.
Don’t know about you, but by this point, I was thoroughly disgusted with the both of them. By the end, when Frankenstein is pursuing his Creature through the Arctic Circle, and the Creature is leading him on with no other (apparent) purpose than to make them both miserable, it seems like they deserve each other. They need each other, the Creature as good as says, when he fears that Frankenstein has died or given up. “Without you, Master,” he moans, “what will I do?”
Okay, so enough narrative, on to the actual production critique: I really don't understand what the giant bell was about. This is a minor thing, obviously, and maybe I was just too dense or inattentive of an audience member to recognize or appreciate any thematic tie-in, but the fact remains that I was sort of wondering about it for the rest of the play, whenever the action slowed down a bit. Was there a church-bell theme? A tolling of destiny, perhaps? Hemingway references, at the very least? Not that I noticed. Dear readers, please enlighten me if you can.
I can't really talk about the acting, because it was just brilliant. If you clicked on either of my actor links, you'll know that Victor and the Creature were played wonderfully, and the supporting characters - the old man and family that the Creature encounters, the elder Frankenstein and family, Elizabeth - are just lovely, if almost entirely overshadowed by my morbid fascination with the two leads. Elizabeth does hold her own onstage, in the few short scenes we see her, and - fun fact - she's played by an actress you'll recognize from Pirates of the Caribbean. I would have liked to see more from the actress, just because her style really interests me, but given the constraints of Shelley's not-exactly-feminist storyline, this was not to be. I think the longest scene we ever got to see her in was the one where she died.
The overall aesthetic for this production was a little unclear, too. Don't get me wrong; it was beautiful - the murky red lights in the lab, the gothic-horrific shadows, echoes and swirling mists in the ruined castle, the utterly random train and steampunk-y train crew that ride it across the stage (twice?), singing as they go. But a lot of the time, I really didn't understand the necessity. The train is my favorite example - it was fun, and ingenious, and it was probably sending some sort of message about the industrial age and the cruelty of progress and blabbity-blah, but who knows? The bond between Frankenstein and his Creature was the focus we were drawn to, - and really powerfully! - not whatever larger societal point was being (sketchily) made.
Likewise the aforementioned electric universe. It was gorgeous, and its use made a lot of sense when we were in the lab, or evoking lightning flashes. But it wasn't used for most of the show, I don't think...actually, aside from two very purposeful incidences, I really don't remember what other points during the show made use of it. Which was a shame.
The Royal National Theatre is one of the most enormous, well-respected theaters in Great Britain, and it's also an example of a publicly-funded theater that's producing real brilliance (the other, comparatively formidable one being the Royal Shakespeare Company). It lives in a really ugly building (looks like a cross between a prison and an office park at a distance, no lie), but as a lecturer here at Kingston informed us before the show, their reputation is built on having "the best actors, for the best value, doing the best art, getting the best pay, to put together the best productions in the country." High praise, right? But although everything about it was not perfectly to my taste, I must admit - Frankenstein was a solidly good show. Score one for the government-subsidized theatrical monolith.
Up next in our series: something completely different!