Frankenstein and Keira Knightley—Don’t Confuse the Two

A March march through London theater (sorry, ‘theatre’)

It’s not simply the presence of a Pret a Manger on 42nd Street or the McDonald’s in Leicester Square. American and British theater districts have come to resemble each other in a positively eerie fashion. Stroll Times Square and peruse the ads for Brit imports: Jerusalem, Billy Elliot, Arcadia. Walk around London’s West End and see marquees for New York hits such as Legally Blonde and Clybourne Park and posters for plays featuring our TV stars.

Each country betrays anxieties about the drama of the other. Every couple of years, U.K. newspaper columns worry that they draw too much on American musicals. We fret that a slew of British productions might somehow dim the Great White Way. But to spend seven days in London’s theater is to hold a mirror up to New York’s. Yes, there are plentiful and oft-rehearsed differences between the two theater scenes: They sell ice cream at intermission, we don’t charge for programs, etc. Yet it’s the similarities that seem the most striking—the search for new forms, the difficulty in balancing new writing and lush revivals, the desire for box office–boosting stars.

I spent my spring break in London, during a week in which daffodils and violets suddenly sprang into bloom and daylight savings time launched, but the theater on offer didn’t seem to share that sense of spring awakening. The playhouses featured relatively little new writing, especially by locals, and none of the devised companies (Shunt, Blast Theory, Slung Low, Punchdrunk, etc.) had new pieces on.

Miller and Cumberbatch do a monster mash
Catherine Ashmore
Miller and Cumberbatch do a monster mash

Ironically, one of the freshest productions was also one of the hoariest—a new version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the world’s most often adapted novels. (In fact, another adaptation, courtesy of Rabbit Hole Ensemble, is playing in Brooklyn now.) Frankenstein, as scripted by Nick Dear for the National Theater, has attracted attention for two reasons: the return to the stage of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and the announcement that Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the recent BBC Sherlock series) and Johnny Lee Miller (last seen here in After Miss Julie) would alternate in the roles of the creature and its maker. (New York audiences can see the actors in each configuration at BAM or the Skirball Center when the National Theatre live-broadcasts the production to cinemas on March 24 and 27.)

Rumor has it that this casting resulted from the desire of both actors to play the creature. And who can blame them? The creature seems to occupy most of Dear and Boyle’s attention, to say nothing of the audience’s. Indeed, the wordless first 15 minutes of the play show the creature (Cumberbatch on the night I attended) birthing himself from a gruesome revolving womb and learning to first slither, then stand, then execute a lurching walk. When Dr. Frankenstein does appear, he seems merely an afterthought—Miller has the Byronic good looks the role demands (he looks delicious in a frock coat), but lacks the air of tormented genius that would deepen the part.

Dear, who has crafted likeably dark plays such as Power and The Art of Success, turns in a serviceable but unsubtle adaptation. He smartly dispenses with the frame narrative, set amid Arctic ice sheets, but makes too explicit many of the more nuanced ideas in the novel—the contrast between the creature’s birth and typical childbirth, the creature’s humanity versus Victor’s callousness. But little of this matters alongside Cumberbatch’s genuinely frightening performance and Boyle’s ebullient direction.

Goodness knows how the recession-era National afforded it—the lighting plot alone apparently contains some 18,000 bulbs—but Frankenstein offers a surfeit of visual marvels. Yes, much of it is needlessly flashy and utterly extraneous (a steam engine that arrives onstage in plumes of sparks, a Swiss villa that spirals up effortlessly from the earth, those gorgeous lights), but some of it is simple theatrical magic—like the flock of puppet birds that flies from a dead stump or the tolling of a bell that makes you shiver in your seat. By means natural or otherwise, Boyle has created a hit.

Had Dear decided to include the Arctic scenes, Frankenstein could have shared a set with one of the National’s other offerings: Greenland, a play about climate change with several scenes occurring at the pole. If Frankenstein ultimately hearkens back to 19th-century melodrama, Greenland skips forward the better part of a century to the Living Newspaper, those worthy pieces funded by the Works Project Administration that attempted to make social issues theatrically intelligible.

Unwisely, the National assigned four writers—Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner, Jack Thorne, and Moira Buffini (the Atlantic Theater recently performed her Gabriel). As the production bops from the Copenhagen climate talks to lesbians in couple’s therapy to a student undergoing his Cambridge interview to an activist on a gas pipeline, audiences may feel more muddled about the issues than when they arrived. One character seems to speak for all when he complains of the environment, “It’s so big I don’t know what to do with it.” By the frenetic play’s end, the melting ice that most concerned me was the one in the post-show drink I was eagerly anticipating.

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