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.

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 Frankensteinoffers 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.

Director Bijan Sheibani throws a lot at the production (sometimes literally: flurries of paper snow, a slew of plastic bottles), but little of it illuminates or thrills. A notable exception: the life-size animatronic polar bear (again, how do they pay for these things?) who wanders on eliciting cheers and gasps from the audience, and this is even before he munches on an actor. Would someone please bring this bear over here? Maybe we can get him a stint in Chicago. (And, yes, London’s long since imported that show, too.)

Another chilly creature appears in a competing climate change play, Richard Bean’s The Heretic at the Royal Court. Dr. Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson) is the titular iconoclast, a waspish scientist who remains skeptical on the subject of global warming and is fired from her university job for it. Bean is a funny writer and often quite a daring one—his last play, England People Very Nice, attracted various accusations of racism.

Yet he’s unlikely to provoke much with this new effort, which first withholds plot and then piles it on, sacrificing theme and character development to volleys of jokes, many of them amusing. If neither of these plays on environmental catastrophe succeeds, at least you can hand it to Londoners for mounting two shows on the subject when we haven’t yet managed a single major one. American playwrights, start your hybrid engines.

Stevenson’s clipped speech and the set of her jaw make her an excellent choice to play Cassell. Similarly, you can more or less see why director Trevor Nunn wanted the gorgeous Sienna Miller for his Theatre Royal Haymarket revival of Flare Path, Terence Rattigan’s 1943 patriotic drama about R.A.F. bombers. Miller, who revealed herself as a limited actress on Broadway in After Miss Julie, is now cast as one. Miller plays Patricia, actress wife to bomber Teddy (a sympathetic Harry Hadden-Paton) and former lover of Hollywood star Peter (James Purefoy, slick and commanding), who has come to reclaim her.

Miller acquits herself well enough, though she can sometimes appear oddly blank. But the real revelation is the luminous Sheridan Smith, a musical theater actress (she just received the Olivier, the equivalent of a Tony, as Elle in Legally Blonde) who plays a brassy barmaid now married to a Polish count. At first she seems mere comic relief, but as she listens to a letter from her husband, presumed dead, I dare you not to feel a crumpet-sized lump in our throat.

Rattigan is enjoying considerable London vogue at the moment. A production of After the Dance (1939) recently closed and one of Cause Célèbre (1976) will soon open. His mid-century reticence seems to appeal to a newly austere Britain. But if you think Rattigan is a picture of reserve (and indeed one character in the midst of Flare Path whines, “How I hate all this polite air force understatement”), you will discover with some surprise that Flare Pathcloses with a song as profane as anything on the contemporary stage.

Restraint, repression, and conflicted longing are also at the heart of Ian Rickson’s well-appointed revival of The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama at the West End’s Comedy Theatre. This play also boasts a marquee name—well, two if you’re a Mad Men fan, as many Londoners are. Keira Knightley plays Karen Wright and Elisabeth Moss plays Martha Dobie, two schoolmistresses accused of lesbianism by a uniquely nasty pupil named Mary (an irritating Bryony Hannah).

Rickson, who will soon bring Jez Butterworth’s marvelous Jerusalem to Broadway, can’t decide if he wants naturalism or something more stylized, but he ably creates the hothouse atmosphere of the small town school. And Knightley, who received mixed notices when she made her stage debut last year with The Misanthrope, flourishes. While her New England accent is highly variable (and those of her students deplorable), she lends remarkable emotional access to the conflicted Karen, and Moss is even more striking as a woman forced to kill herself once she reveals her long-stifled desires.

If characters were forced to kill themselves every time they aired uncomfortable truths, writer-director Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep would end in record time, which would be a fine thing. Brother Bobby (Lost star Matthew Fox) and sister Betty (Olivia Williams, of Dollhouse and Rushmore fame) meet at her lakeside cabin to clear out a tenant’s possessions. As Betty glugs a bottle of wine, Bobby pounds Budweisers. Very little packing occurs, though both of them work through remarkable amounts of exposition and several preposterous secrets.

The play wouldn’t be so bad had LaBute not employed the same directorial moves and the same dramaturgical strategies as he has so many times before—the annoyingly loud rock music, the gotcha structure, the endless inarticulacy, the privileging of the boorish white guy, the misogynistic vocabulary (“cunt,” “bitch,” “whore”). If the play does prove popular, which seems unlikely, it will serve to confirm Brits’ worst suspicions of Americans—that we’re crass, violent, sex-crazed, murderous, and utterly unable to ever shut up. In all likelihood, In a Forest, Dark and Deep will wash up on our own shores next season (likely at MCC). But we ought to want better from our theater. And better from London theater, too.

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