Alex Ross Laments the downturn of New York City opera in the March 12th issue of the New Yorker. He gutted the Metropolitan’s production of “Götterdämmerung,” the final installment of Robert Lepage’s “Ring,” which he likened to “Hollywood superhero movies” because of its over-the-top scenery that overshadows the singers: opera is about the singers. The bulk of his criticism is aimed at the live HD transmissions of opera productions that are screened in movie theatres nationally and internationally. It seems that the large scenery and staging makes sense when viewed on film, which leads Ross to “wonder whether it is almost unfair to review new Met stagings from the point of view of one sitting in the house, since they now seem designed more for the camera operators.” If live theatre begins to be staged so that it works well on film, then what purpose will live theatre serve? As Ross states, people will stop coming to the Met if the opera sucks, and they will instead opt to see the quality film versions at a lower price.
Luckily, the National Theatre in London has not fallen into this trap. It has begun to film live streams of its most popular productions to be shown in theatres, and based on the screening of Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein that I saw last night, I can safely say that it still feels and looks like theatre. While the National Theatre agreed to film its live performances, its first priority is to stage its production for a live audience. And I don’t think the production was lacking as a film. The camera performed all the adaptation that was required: it closed in on the actors and shot from cinematic angles that a live audience is unable to watch the play from, and that is all that is needed to help a cinematic audience view a stage production.
This new trend can be a good thing if theatre houses follow the National Theatre’s cues. It’s no secret that the cost of going to the theatre can burn a hole in anyone’s wallet or purse, and how else would I have gotten the chance to see the great Benedict Cumberbatch play the role of the creature? Of course the cinematic experience of a stage production could never take the place of the experience of watching live theatre, but it is more feasible for a person who wants to be cultured but doesn’t quite have the financial means to be. I would love to go into New York and see a play or the occasional good musical every weekend, but, unfortunately, I am a card-carrying member of the 99%.
Despite the addition of cinematic camera shots, Frankenstein was, clearly, still a play, so I almost felt like I was at the National Theatre. Boyle and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus is nothing short of brilliant and terribly sad. Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated roles each night of the play’s run; I was fortunate to come on the night when the Cranford Digiplex was screening a performance where Cumberbatch was the creature and Miller was Frankenstein. Alternating roles, Boyle says, was done so that Frankenstein and his monster can really be mirrors for each other. In fact, in Miller’s portrayal of Frankenstein he incorporates some of Cumberbatch as the monster’s mannerisms and physical movements into his own performance. It certainly makes the audience wonder, who is the monster? Though the play has no trouble answering that question: Victor Frankenstein.
Only sympathy, pity, sadness are felt for Frankenstein’s abandoned and fiercely hated creation: at no point in the play did I hate the creature. But, of course, this is because I was told his story. The play begins with the creature; it begins after he has been abandoned by Frankenstein and does not know who, what, or where he is. The opening scene is really heartbreaking: the creature’s body is hideous—scarred and stitched—and he wears only a loincloth. First he flails on the floor like a fish on the deck of a ship before it dies. The creature moans in agony and violently thrashes about the floor, trying to move his limbs, stand, walk. In a brief interview with Miller and Cumberbatch that was shown before the play, the two actors discuss the inspiration and the research they used to try and form the creature’s movements. Miller mentioned that there is a lot of his two-year-old son in his performance: an extremely curious and active brain, but a body that cannot, yet, be fully controlled. There is a definite likeness between the creature and a toddler, but I think the inspiration Cumberbatch says he derived from watching stroke patients and physically handicapped people is a more powerful likeness to draw with the creature. When you witness a young child discovering how to use his body and relate to the world for the first time, it appears to be a magical and exciting experience for him. But in the opening scene when the creature is trying to make himself walk, when he realizes he’s hungry but doesn’t know how to feed himself, when he is confused by the rain that falls from the sky upon him, it is devastating to watch because he appears to be a prisoner of his body. Cumberbatch moves his limbs and face as though he has never taken a step or spoken a word in his life. This first scene, alone, is an acting triumph.
The play is smart because it emphasizes the right parts of Shelley’s work. The most important part is the education the creature receives from the blind man. The old blind man teaches the creature to read everything from Milton to Plutarch, because in his opinion an educated man is a good man. But the creature finds that the more he learns the more he doesn’t know: he knows how men behave but not why, and the message, of course, is that reading cannot always clearly tell us what is good or what our own society designates to be so. The creature never knows human kindness except for the blind man, and when he realizes he is never going to be accepted by society, he resorts to seeking revenge like the Ancient Romans. There are many factors that shape an individual, and having one in the absence of all others can prove dangerous.
At the end of the play when the actors came out to take their bows, no one was sure if we were supposed to applaud like the live audience on screen. There were timid claps as people looked around to see if anyone near them was clapping, but there was no standing ovation. So the curtain call was a little awkward, but it sort of felt like a night at the theatre.