I saw London’s biggest stage sensation a couple of days ago, and not because Popdose sent me (like that would ever happen). I just walked across Flatbush Avenue and took my seat at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Frankenstein was beamed across the pond courtesy of National Theatre Live. Like The Metropolitan Opera the National Theatre has been simulcasting some of its productions via satellite for a couple of years now, but I was reluctant to attend. I’ve always found the idea of experiencing otherwise inaccessible live entertainment via TV or a film screen more enchanting than the reality, where too often the camera freezes in its tracks and the performance is rendered inert, the immediacy and excitement gone. “Why did people pay good money for that?” you end up thinking as you rouse your dozing, frustrated self from your seat.
Still, $21 seemed a small price to pay given the hubbub and generally excellent reviews the show has received. The director is the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle, returning to the stage for the first time since his film success, and the two reputable stars, Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes) and Jonny Lee Miller (most recently on Dexter), alternate in the roles of Doctor Frankenstein and the Creature. And it’s a big production, with a steam engine that rumbles through one raucous scene, a flight of paper birds, and an overhanging assemblage of 18,000 lights that zap the show with electricity.
The size worried me–how would it translate to film? Mostly Frankenstein worried me–Mary Shelley’s captivating creation (that a young woman writing early in the 19th century got so far in her thinking boggles the mind) is an evergreen at the movies but a stiff on the stage. I saw the flop Young Frankenstein musical on Broadway in 2007 and a smaller, serious-minded Off Broadway musicalization of Shelley’s novel that year, loud and clangy and equally unsuccessful. And I’ve dined out for decades on having seen a super-production of Frankenstein, the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark of its era, during Christmas week previews in 1980. (Seriously–when I casually drop this into conversation with theater buffs they look at me with reverent awe and want to touch the hem of my sweaters.) Hewing to the look and tone of the Universal Frankenstein features of the 30s, and featuring as the blind hermit the legendary John Carradine (who had been in one) the $5 million drama broke down twice when we saw it and closed on opening night a week later. As a 15-year-old monster kid I sort of loved it anyway. But when I met its effects designer years later at Disney he went pale and trembly when I mentioned it, and I felt it unwise to bring it up with co-stars John Glover and Dianne Wiest when I subsequently encountered hem.
This Frankenstein, however, is one you can discuss in mixed company–no one will run and hide from its achievement. And I wanted to bring it up here because, lucky you, depending on where you live you can still see it, as the performances on March 17 and 24 are scheduled to be rebroadcast through mid-April in some venues. And you should, as the adapter, Nick Dear, has done a splendid job extracting Shelley’s book for its essence, Boyle, his cast, and his design team have brought it to blazing life for two pulse-quickening hours, and the National Theatre Live team has sent it to us colonists in excellent shape.
The experience of seeing it was interesting. Broadway theaters are beginning to allow patrons to eat and drink during performances, a revolting development; but, knowing that I wouldn’t be bothering the actors with my munching, I didn’t hesitate to buy a big popcorn and Pepsi. In lieu of a program we were given a one-page sheet with the cast and crew info, with instructions to how to download a full bulletin (for a price) part of the preshow activity. British broadcaster Emma Freud welcomed us to our seats as the National audience filed in, and for a curtain raiser we were shown a part of a documentary that the theatre has commissioned about the show, which would indicate that it will be made available for broadcast or home video somewhere down the road.
And this is a good thing, as Frankenstein is the best show I’ve seen on stage or screen so far this year. Certainly Cumberbatch, as the Creature, is giving an extraordinary performance. As iconic and fantastic as he remains we’re in a different realm here than with Boris Karloff’s largely silent and often sympathetic monster, or the various creations devised by Peter Cushing’s doctor in the Hammer films, which focused less on them and more on his spiritual and physical degradation. Clambering from an egg-like sac the scarred Creature inhales life, a painful and turbulent process that Cumberbatch enacts with tremendous physicality. Abandoned in swift order by his maker and mankind, the Creature receives life lessons from the blind man–no hermit this time, but a professor who has been displaced by war. When the idyll is cut brutally short the now voluble and vengeful Creature seeks his maker, who had swiftly abandoned him.
The doctor, who fancied playing God, pays dearly for his lack of responsibility toward the being, and the two are locked in a an ever-tightening death spiral of futility. Offering some alternative is Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth (Naomie Harris, star of Boyle’s 28 Days Later, in a beautiful performance that should give rise to all sorts of multiracial possibilities for this material). Though aware of the limitations placed on her by society Elizabeth is determined to make the best of her opportunities, a yearning that Frankenstein and his quest for a larger transcendence ignores but which gives the Creature a measure of comfort when they meet. It’s the tenderest scene in the production–and the one that opens up the final abyss. This leads to the most satisfying ending I’ve ever seen in a stage or screen Frankenstein.
I had a few quibbles with the presentation. There was an audio glitch and a clumsy transition into a dream sequence that the cameras, otherwise well-positioned and with ample overhead shots lost on the theatre crowd, couldn’t quite manage. The light cluster was so “hot” it did make the HD image bleed from time to time and may have added to Miller’s perspiration, which was only amplified in closeup. Still and all, though, a tremendous bargain–but if you want to see either actor naked for the first part of the show, which they are when the Creature is born, you’ll have to book passage to London. (For modesty’s sake their Frankenbits were loinclothed for the simulcasts, though there is another dollop of nudity in the production.)
My only problem with the production is that these satellite performances and their potential for reuse, however welcome, would seem to mean that this Frankenstein will not have a theatrical afterlife. I hope Boyle does–his filmmaking has gotten very tricksy recently and while he’s directed the show with cinematic aplomb the stage obliges certain limits that work in his, and Frankenstein‘s, favor. (And, no offense to the hard-working Miller, if he makes a “real” movie out of it I’d like to see Cumberbatch in both parts.) For now, however, we have this hybrid of stage and screen, which is something of a Frankenstein itself…and thankfully in this instance, to paraphrase the movies, “it’s alive!”
Code Blu: While Miller works up a sweat onstage his former wife, Angelina Jolie, is at her most androidal in The Tourist, which is now on DVD and Blu-ray or in a combo pack, not that you’ll want to watch it in either format more than once. Remaking a French hit co-writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of the Oscar-winning East German drama The Lives of Others (2006), and two Academy Award-winning scribes, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), have turned all that gold into stones. I assume the director had in mind a light breeze of a caper along the lines of To Catch a Thief or Charade, a sophisticated romp for a star combo in European ports of call. But you can’t have To Catch a Thief or Charade with witless dialogue that when in doubt drops the f-bomb (would Cary Grant do that?), a plot that spends way too much time having some of the characters spy on the rest of the characters via computers enabled with far-fetched functions–and two leads who seemed to have been flown to Venice in Medevacs and awakened from comas an hour before shooting began.
Alone, they’re just about passable. As a American math teacher dragooned into espionage and funny money doings Johnny Depp gives an offhand performance, which works in a silly/harrowing chase scene atop terracotta roofs but is no help in connecting him to Angelina Jolie, as a self-described “woman of mystery” from Britain. Always more alive when being roughed up Jolie is so breathtakingly beautiful here it’s as if she were CG-ed into the movie, more app than actress, and neither she nor Depp make much of an effort to access one another. A movie like this, especially when it has little else going for it, relies on chemistry to squeak by, and these two keep it to themselves. Were they contemptuous of the plot twists that negate rather than animate their activities? The Tourist fully earned Ricky Gervais’ scorn at the Golden Globes.
The Blu-ray, at least, scores a few points. While not quite as crystalline as some I’ve seen the image (2.40:1 aspect ratio, AVC codec) has the requisite big studio production pop to it, particularly when the camera alights on co-star Paul Bettany’s deeper-than-blue eyes or some Venetian landmark. (You sort of stop looking at the stars after awhile, knowing they’re not going to offer too much.) Extras-wise there are a few featurettes that bask in the (wasted) opulence of the production and an enthusiastic director commentary that had to have been recorded before the reviews and negligible U.S. boxoffice returns were in. It’s a pretty suitcase but The Tourist travels coach all the way.