One of the many great pleasures in watching director Danny Boyle’s career unfold is the inability to pin him down as he bounces from one genre to another – from zombie tale (‘28 Days Later‘) to trippy sci-fi freakout (‘Sunshine‘) to grounded, humanistic drama (‘127 Hours‘). Somehow, everything he gets involved in is undeniably his own. So it was with much fascination and excitement that I went to a simulcast of his London staging of ‘Frankenstein’. Boyle does Gothic horror in front of a live audience? Yes please.
First, a bit about the production: It’s presented at the National Theatre in London, with the two lead roles of Frankenstein and the Monster switching every night. One night, Jonny Lee Miller (a Boyle veteran of ‘Trainspotting’, and former Mr. Angelina Jolie) will don the scars to become the deranged Monster while Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the outstanding BBC modernization ‘Sherlock‘) will provide the stately unease of the doctor. The next night, they’ll flip the roles. The version I saw is the one described above, with Miller (his head shaved completely) as the Monster and Cumberbatch as the doctor. Naomi Harris, who starred in ’28 Days Later’ as a feisty survivor, is the female lead, Frankenstein’s intended.
The play fascinates from the very beginning, as a surge of “lightning” is visualized by what looks like hundreds of light bulbs hanging from the theatre’s ceiling. They seem to be computer controlled so they can go off in a dizzying series of patterns, mostly to mimic lightning or to enhance the emotions of certain scenes. We’re seeing the world from the Monster’s point of view. For the first fifteen minutes or so, all we’re doing is watching Miller’s creature acclimate himself to life. He begins by flailing around, then starts to hobble, then is running around in circles on the stage. It’s an amazingly physical performance (you can’t help but think how exhausting it all must be), but one that’s accented by Miller’s ability to imbibe the character with emotions and yearnings. We watch as he befriends an old blind man, and then watch that understanding curdle into something darker. By the time the doctor comes back into the picture, the play is halfway over.
It’s then that the Monster begs the doctor to make him a bride, and the sexual overtones of the play come to the forefront. The doctor, in a perfectly calibrated performance by Cumberbatch, is clearly a homosexual. This makes the Monster even more otherworldly, since he has desires that Frankenstein does not. (Harris as the doctor’s fiancé is always wondering why he doesn’t respond to her physically.) The play gets darker and darker as things go along, giving reverence to the original source material but folding in stranger and more modern elements (like a pulse-pounding score by British dance musicians Underworld). It’s a Boyle production through and through, unafraid to push boundaries or make people squirm. The gender and sexual politics are front and center, and there’s a fair amount of the red stuff too.
If you didn’t get a chance to watch this on a big screen, fear not. It looks like it will make its way to home video very soon (before Halloween would be my guess). This ‘Frankenstein’ is scary good.