Log in

No account? Create an account

therapeutic thump

i like your moxie, sassafras!

Previous Entry Share Flag Next Entry
We can only go forward. We can never go back. (four great performances in Frankenstein)
the arch of the eyebrows gives it away
Hi, everybody!

I've now seen both versions of the National Theatre's Frankenstein at the movies, and wanted to record my thoughts. This is going to get long and spoilery.

To keep this from getting insanely long and needlessly complicated, I'm using these abbreviations:
BCC = Benedict Cumberbatch's Creature
BCV = Benedict Cumberbatch's Victor Frankenstein
JLMC = Jonny Lee Miller's Creature
JLMV = Jonny Lee Miller's Victor Frankenstein

Let's get started.

I admit that I've read Frankenstein many, many times and admired a lot of what Mary Shelley did in it without ever liking the novel. Victor Frankenstein, in particular, needs to be punched in the throat and drop-kicked off a cliff. This play, by Nick Dear, is certainly not a stronger or better piece of writing, and in fact I'd argue that it really only serves the two main characters of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.

That opening scene: Right from the get-go, there are significant differences between BCC and JLMC. BCC is far more awkward in his birth-throes, takes longer to get moving, and has an almost jagged, punctuated equilibrium-style of learning. I don't recall seeing him sit up straight, for instance, which JLMC did after about two minutes of writhing and crawling. JLMC seemed to connect the dots more smoothly in general, recognizing different parts of his own body fairly quickly and building his knowledge step by step: from flopping and writhing to crawling to sitting to tumbling to standing to walking. BCC seemed more fascinated by different parts of himself, not realizing they were him, and unsure how his feet, for instance, might aid him in walking.

Perhaps it is the difference in their body types - JLM being slightly shorter and definitely stockier than BC - but JLMC seemed stronger right from the beginning. When JLMC first begins to walk and does laps around the stage, the movement gets fluid very quickly - he is learning with astonishing speed. It's almost as if JLMC is relearning rather than learning - he knows what needs to be done and sets himself the mighty task of achieving his goals. BCC, on the other hand, starts walking with a distinctly duck-like gait, splay-footed and bum-wiggly and endearingly awkward and new; he does his laps, gaining speed and coordination, but it's not easy for him, he's shivering, and he tries to get back into his womb.

While the Creature lies in front of his womb, face-down and panting, Victor Frankenstein enters. JLMV, I have to say, did not work for me at all in this scene. It's clear from the attention he pays that side of the stage that he sees his Creature no longer in the womb, yet he acts surprised moments later (even before verifying that the Creature is alive). JLMV's reactions all seemed oddly timed and strangely muted in this scene - it was as if he expected the experiment to work but not to be so disappointing. When he touched the Creature and discovered it still breathed, he started shouting at it to stay where it was like he expected the Creature to understand his words. BCV was very different - he entered the scene convincingly sweaty (stains on his shirt at the chest, back, and armpits) and seemed utterly taken aback to see his Creature on the ground instead of in the womb. When BCV yelled at the Creature to stay back, it seemed less like a command and more like an instinct to keep himself safe - there was no expectation that the Creature would understand.

Despite what I just said about BCV's sweat-soaked shirt, I think the difference between the two Victors can be summarized with Edison's declaration that "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." JLM played Victor as a man of learning, who buried himself in his books in his determination to know everything. His quest left him no time for any joy in life other than being right. He is the 99% of the equation. BC played the 1% - his Victor is a prodigy, someone who doesn't even know what he's capable of until he's done it, in a frenzied whirl of energy. Despite his scorn for what he sees as outdated reverence for God, BC's Victor seems sometimes like an instrument of something - some would say divinity, he would say his own genius - working through him, so that it's less about his concerted efforts and more about what he can achieve. (The movie Amadeus is how I kept thinking of them: JLMV = Salieri, BCV = Mozart.)

That's why BCV can look so honestly taken aback by the sight of his living Creature, and why JLMV does not linger on his surprise for very long - JLMV knew what he was doing and BCV did not. Those choices also make BCV seem much younger than JLMV - and it's worth noting that BCC seemed far younger than JLMC as well.

Just like JLMV, JLMC seemed very conscious of the necessity of knowledge, and pursued that quest with the same fanaticism as his creator. JLMC's speech was much more distinctly enunciated than BCC's, just as his movements were more fluid and less jerky. JLMC also observed things that seemed to pass BCC by entirely - JLMC was curious about the campfire and wailed when it died out, while BCC seemed entirely intent on the food the fire was cooking and not to notice when the fire burned out. Again, BCC seemed younger than JLMC - BCC wanted that food and had no interest in anything else, as if he could focus on only one thing at a time, while JLMC seemed to want to soak in as much knowledge as possible at all times.

Though JLMC, with his determination, missed out on a lot of the joy BCC found - BCC found such simple, un-self-conscious delight in the sound of birds, the breeze of a book's pages being flipped, calling back to both of those moments repeatedly. In the scenes with De Lacey too, BCC is at once a hyperactive child and a playful mimic, imitating all of the old man's actions and gestures with a sense of fun. JLMC did not play humor - even the scene where he's trying to gauge if he can get away with keeping one eye on the blind man while examining the falling snow seemed less about fun and more about curiosity (and also rebelling against De Lacey's authority in a very small way). Again, JLMC spoke much more clearly than BCC, so JLMC seemed to have learned more, to become an adult in far fewer steps. A moment that really struck me was when De Lacey reached out to touch the Creature's head: the Creature recoils and De Lacey explains that he sees with his hands and asks, this time, for permission. JLMC grants that permission and keeps eye contact with De Lacey; BCC bows his head entirely, making himself completely vulnerable.

I think that's the difference between the two Creatures: JLMC evidently felt himself to have a purpose, a reason to acquire knowledge, a plan almost all along, while BCC took each experience (birdsong, sunrise) as its own thing and reacted to it in isolation. It seems too simple to say JLMC was motivated by rage and determination and BCC by delight and joy, but that does convey what I saw. The line the Creature speaks, describing the moon as "solitary like me," thus cuts differently depending on which actor is behind it: JLMC says it with the understanding that he alone is outside of society and a desire to find some sort of community with his creator, while BCC states it as a fact of his life and something he's just beginning (with De Lacey) to think might not always have to be true.

Even much later, when Victor offers the Creature the Female that he's nearly through creating, the actors' choices stay consistent. Ordered by Victor to explain what love feels like, the Creature says, "It feels like everything is boiling over and spilling out of me; it feels like my lungs are on fire, and my heart is a hammer, and I feel like I can do anything...I feel like I can do anything in the world..." JLMC, who understands what he's been taught about human nature, speaks the words while looking at the Female but keeps darting his eyes back to Victor, to check on the effect his words are having. BCC, whose emotions are always his guide instead of his intellect (though he has learned just as much), keeps his gaze fixed on the Female, yearning for her openly and without disguise. Again, BCC does not enunciate clearly even by the end of the play - he speaks throughout with marked difficulty and effort; JLMC's smoother diction - interrupted by consistent tics - is more suited to persuasion than the earnestness BCC employs.

And again, the actors keep certain characteristics in both roles - BCV, boy genius, does not learn any more than BCC, Creature of instinct, does; JLMC and JLMV both acquire and hoard knowledge with the understanding that it can be made to equal power. That's played in interesting ways, the most striking of which is that in the first scenes where the Creature and Victor meet in Geneva, JLMV strides and points and declaims while BCV falls to his knees. To see a creator kneeling before his creation is very powerful, and adds weight to Victor's lines about remembering (rather dazedly) the sweat and heat and inspiration that led to the Creature's creation. The line "You were an equation" is spoken by JLMV with scorn (how dare the Creature claim to be anything other than what Victor created him to be?) and BCV with disbelief (he still can't believe that something his brain came up with is living and breathing and thinking in front of him). It's as if JLMV said "Look at my creation!" and BCV said "Look at my creation!"

This is already too long, but I do want to mention just two more points. Elizabeth - this is a thankless role, burdened with a lot of girl-power attitude and clunky lines, but Naomie Harris makes a valiant effort. She's more adrift with JLMV, in part because he is so cold to anything but his beloved science, but even with BCV, who just seems not to be adult enough to offer her a relationship, I wondered why a girl so beautiful and curious and loving consented to marry a cousin who has no real interest in her. When Victor says he loves her, JLMV seemed to be saying it because he knows he should and BCV because he does (if only in a cousinly, why-do-things-have-to-change way). There was one moment I was surprised to see played by BCV and not by JLMV: when the Creature asks Victor for a Female (as ugly as himself so that he cannot be rejected) and Victor agrees to create again but says that a bride must be beautiful and sets himself the task of making a Female who can "pass" in regular society as an ordinary woman instead of a created one - when he next sees Elizabeth, who starts speaking of their wedding, BCV openly evaluates her beauty as inspiration for his next project. JLMV should have done that too, I think, though perhaps he is too blind to Elizabeth's beauty to register it as a model.

And lastly, to end on a shallow note, I really enjoyed some of Victor's clothing choices (though Ben's bum peeked out distractingly through the long slit in his wedding-coat), and BC does seem to have fun with twirly coats in general. And it was lovely to see that ginger hair on the big screen!

If you've made it this far, feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree.

Also, not to get hopes up for a DVD, but this time, in the intro, Emma Freud specifically said that the ten-minute clip that was shown before the filmed stage production was part of a longer documentary that would be made available at some point. Surely they wouldn't put out the documentary without the actual performances? Right?

  • 1
well, this seems like an interesting adaptation. thanks for posting about it!

I've always wanted to write a stage adaptation, simply because my husband is an actor and I've always wanted him to play either Victor or the Creature or both. But part of the magic of the novel is the layering and mirroring that happens again and again throughout the novel. I like the idea of the actors switching roles throughout -- I was planning on doing that with my actors too, but I wanted one male, one female. :P

At its heart, the novel is about the quandary of existence: "Did I ask thee, Maker, out of darkness to promote me?" and
"I ought to have been thine Adam, but am rather the fallen Angel, whom thou drivest into darkness for no misdeed!"

In the end -- do you think the stage play met the terms of the novel?

Honestly? No. As dedicated and thoughtful as Ben and Jonny were in their performances, the play does not engage with most of the questions the novel raises. But for the acting's sake, it's well worth seeing. (Have you seen it?/Will you be going to see it?)

I think your idea about the male/female switching sounds fascinating!

I really enjoyed reading your review, though I haven't seen the performances--no local screenings, alas. I so hope they're released on DVD!

Hey there, honey! What a bummer that you couldn't find a local screening - this write-up is a very poor consolation prize. I hope there's a DVD too!


I didn't even read the post because I still hold some hope that they are going to keep alive the play until when I go over there. I read some place on the internet (on passing, I can't even recall where) that they are going to extend it until early May, is there any hope that by May 11 and the week after that it will be still playing? :D

Sorry if I ask like this, but I'm so DESPERATE to see Cumberbatch live that I might even lose some dignity in the process. Any info will be appreciated. ♥

Hey, sugar! I can't find the post, but I think I remember reading that the last performance will be May 2. But check the link I left above to see if you can catch a filmed version near you before then!

I too would love to see him live - there are rumors that he might be coming to New York (Broadway) next spring, which would be lovely.

Thank you for this. Now I'm sorry I didn't squeeze an effort out of myself and gone to see it on the 24th too, since it seems like the differences were significant and enticing.

I thought BC would play Victor the way he plays Sherlock, with the arrogance of genius - it would certainly fit the character - but from your review it sounds like he made some more intriguing choices. After Ben's Creature, I probably would have disliked JLM's though.

Oh well, we can't have everything. A week was too soon for me to be seeing the play again (in addition to my personal issues), I can't imagine what it must be to act in it every night...

Yeah, I thought (before yesterday's viewing) that BC's Victor would be substantively the same as his Sherlock, but it's really JLM's Victor who bears a kinship with Sherlock. I really enjoyed BC's take on Victor, who was a sort of artist as well as scientist. What would be extraordinary is if we could have BC's Creature squaring off against BC's Victor.

And I honestly don't know how the two of them are pulling these raw, draining performances out of themselves night after night. I would want to sleep for a week after the run was over.

(Deleted comment)
eeeeee, I hope you enjoy it! I really thought it would be Sherlock-lite, but BC went a different and more interesting route!

Thank you so much for this! I've been wondering what the play would be like (I really love the novel, and Mary Shelley in general), and this is really informative. I'm sorry I won't be able to see one of the filmed versions...The nearest one seems to be a two hour drive away....

You say above BC might be coming to B'way--any idea in what? In this production?

Oh, man, I'm sorry that you won't be able to see either version, but I'm glad this helped a little! The rumor is that After the Dance might be coming to Broadway next spring, original cast intact. I cannot even imagine how excited I will be if that comes to pass.

This review is marvelous!!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. It really provides a lot of great insights into the ways that BC and JLM played their roles. I was only able to see BC as the Creature and JLM as Victor, so I was insanely curious to read an in-depth review of the play where the roles were reversed. I also thought that BC would have played Victor with hints of Sherlock mixed in, but it sounds like he went against that. I think both actors are incredibly talented and I admire the hell out of them for doing this production night after night. It's not an easy task and I could see why they'd be so exhausted each night and would be dripping with sweat. Yikes!

Anyway...thank you once again for sharing this. It was a pleasure to read! :)

Oh, I'm so pleased! I really wanted to see the show live, but I'm very lucky that I live in a place that shows these broadcasts, so I knew I had to see both versions. The more I think about it, the happier I am that BC's Victor was so far removed from his Sherlock, and I agree, both of these actors are superb.

What a great review! I was also lucky to see both versions on screen, and although I have attempted to compare them (outside of LJ), I haven't been able to dissect the performances even half as aptly as you have. All the nuances I saw and felt but couldn't quite put into words, you've summed up perfectly. And you also bring up details that I missed, but ones that make sense. I agree with pretty much everything you say.

Oh, how I wish I could see Frankenstein again. Any version. Sigh.

Thank you so much! Yes, a friend who knew nothing about the show told me this morning that she'd read this review and thought how cool it was to get two entirely different shows out of one script and cast. Which it totally is.

I just wish that we could investigate all of these nuances on a DVD . . .

Thanks for this! I was lucky enough to see a showing with BC as the Creature and I did wonder how different it was when the actors switched. I won't have a chance to see JLM as the creature unless it comes out on dvd but this helped a lot!

I'm glad this was useful! I really got so lucky that I was able to see both versions, though I will say that the theaters here didn't exactly make it easy to figure out what was going to be shown. Come on, DVD!

Just to say - awesome review, I appreciated it (here through some random googling via Cumberbatchfans). I saw the screening with BC as the Creature and while I'm actually very pleased that it was that one it did leave me intensely curious as to what his Victor would have been like. And whether JLMV being rather less interesting to watch was due to the role, the actor, or both. I love the way you characterised their interpretations, which seems to make a lot of sense in retrospect. Hmmm, I wasn't sure I wanted to see it again merely for the alternative casting, but now I realise how different their approaches are I think it'd be worth it. Oh well, maybe there'll be a DVD :)

I'm really glad you found this useful - and yes, fingers crossed for a DVD!

Thanks for this! I saw the filmed version with Benedict as the Creature and Jonny as Victor, but due to the expense, I decided not to try to see the reverse casting. I had some difficulty relating to Benedict's Creature in the early going (some of it due to the way it was filmed), so your comparison helps. I honestly think I might prefer Jonny's Creature to Benedict's until the Creature learns to talk.

Your analysis is interesting. I don't remember, and didn't pick up on, as many details as you did -- some of the early stuff, especially, whizzed by me due to camera angles and being distracted by that damn diaper -- but your explanation helps me understand why I found Jonny's initial appearance as Victor so unimpressive. I would have expected Victor to stay by the womb waiting until the Creature appeared anyway; the fact that he didn't threw me off entirely. I also felt that although the play did a good job of highlighting the Creature's dilemma and how the deck was stacked against him, it was unbalanced, and there was a lot more to the story that could and should have been included that would have taken it from being a good play to being a great one.

I also liked Elizabeth, and Naomie Harris' performance as her, better than you did. I think the answer to the question as to why she was willing to marry Victor is contextual. It was his mother's -- her aunt's -- dying wish, and at the time, marriages were arranged and were necessary to assure social status and financial stability. In addition, she clearly wanted a family and seemed to love Victor even if he didn't love her.

I know the rationale for Elizabeth's willingness to marry in the novel, but I do feel like the play left any explanation conspicuously out, given the characterization of Victor.

The filming was a little distracting, but I did see BC's Creature twice in the cinemas, which definitely helped in terms of remembering things for this review and also making sense of the acting choices. Jonny's Creature is much easier to understand and so I found him less sympathetic - I do think the Creature should feel like and appear to be an alien - completely unique - instead of someone simply lagging behind.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Wow. Having (at last) read your review here, my few lines that I just emailed to you feel woefully inadequate! *cough* I blame it on my science-based studies. I tend to take plays and books far too much at face value and not look for any deeper symbolism or meaning.

That being said - yes, BCC does wiggle his bum when he first learns to walk! It was ridiculously endearing (& distracting!) :) And yes, I agree that BCC seemed younger and more joyful than JLMC, who just seemed as though he had all this repressed anger right from the start. Actually, JLMC made me think a bit of a teenager, who's just angry at the whole world for no very good reason.

And I agree with your impressions of BCV & JLMV when they were confronted with their creations. BCV's recoil and shout of 'Keep away!' seemed much more instinctive than JLMV, with no real thought that the creature would actually understand him.

I'm really glad I finally got to see it, it was fantastic.

Hahahaha, this is not me being deep. This is me being far too willing to overthink everything!

Except the bum wiggling, because my brain shut down when that happened.

I really like your analogy of JLMC to a teenager, because that senseless anger did feel very familiar. And it goes along too with the idea of JLMC developing as natural evolution (albeit very much sped up) dictates a newborn would, while BCC was much more haphazard - if he can miss out on sitting up, then he could equally well miss out on teenage drama.

  • 1