Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing God

Two of the best: Benedict Cumberbatch.Jonny Lee Miller

Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley wrote an earth-shattering book in 1818, putting forth the concept of man’s ego and pursuit of science running away with him, causing him to think himself capable of the undreamed-of feat of cobbling together a living human being out of the scraps of dead ones. Frankenstein is sometimes called the first science fiction novel, and as such, it is a story of science gone wrong—and is fraught with the high drama of the exploits of the most terrifying monster imaginable, one created by man to prove his own worth.

The idea has fascinated us for two centuries now, and will likely do so for more to come. In England’s National Theatre production, presented on screen at the Rosendale Theatre yesterday, the two principle characters—Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he created—appear to be vying for the position of most despicable. They discuss philosophy (unlike  in the beloved 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, this monster can speak, and does so with erudition and eloquence), they spar and try to kill each other, as they debate morality and they both behave like sociopaths.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the monster. He begins life almost as an embryo, in an extraordinary, almost balletic slither across the floor, replete with contortions and spasms until he can stand upright. He is so grotesque we can hardly bear to look at him, and indeed almost everybody who does look at him tries immediately to kill him. He comes upon a remote cottage where a blind man lives and takes him in. This man gives him the education and compassion he needs for a year’s time, and also demonstrates to the monster, by happenstance, that no man is trustworthy or good.

Jonny Lee Miller is convincing as the mad genius who came up with the idea that, with all the tools of modern science, he not only could create a human being from scratch, but he should—for his own personal glory and, he thinks, for the advancement of mankind.

Cumberbatch and Miller are the best of the best, products of the English discipline of theatre. They are extremely intelligent but also extremely emotional, and in control of every gesture and emotion a human being can conjure. They are extraordinary and awe-inspiring to behold; one feels privileged to live in a generation that can see them at their best, alive and creating before our eyes. Both have done extensive television, but like most English actors, they are at their finest on the stage.

The National Theatre production demonstrates the full art of stage production, with fiery lighting, special effects, and an ensemble of first-rate actors to support the leading players. Both the stars are on an equal footing, and all the cast and special effects and technicians serve them by split-second timed changes and  commitment to the show. It is a phenomenon to see.

The second show of the evening was scheduled to be a unique twist—the leading roles switched with Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as his creator. I was emotionally exhausted at the end of the show and not sure I could have tolerated another, obviously equal, version of the same that evening, so I was not 100 per cent looking forward to seeing it again. I was a bit relieved when the announcement was made that the second version hadn’t arrived and the evening screening would be the one we had just seen. There will be another showing on Wednesday; if it is the one will Miller as the monster, I must go again (and will do so with relish), but the production was complete and satisfying as I did see it.

1 comment:

  1. Mary Lois--thanks for this post! It's made up my mind--I'll see you there on Wednesday.

    Last June I visited a favorite cousin in La Crosse WI. She teaches high school English, and I asked her what book she most enjoys teaching. Her answer: Frankenstein. She says that through the first-person story, most of her students grasp issues that are provocative and relevant in a new way.

    And so, of course, I'm sending her the link to your blog post too!