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National Theatre Live presents “Frankenstein”

This week, Bella Rachel from Nerds Dream and I were lucky enough to see an encore screening of Frankenstein, presented by the National Theatre Live in London. This show featured Benedict Cumberbatch ( of BBC Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller as the Monster and Frankenstein, respectively, with reverse casting the following night. The original idea was that we would discuss them on each of our blogs.  but then we realized that is exactly what we wanted, a discussion.  So here is our discussion (edited for time if you can believe it).

However, now that we’ve seen both we have realized it is impossible to address them separately as they are so connected and entirely separate at the same time.

To clarify for you in this discussion R = Bella Rachel, EM = ErinMarie and M= Mysterious C


R: Before we begin, I think it’s important we get this out of the way: Swoon at Benedict Cumberbatch; Swoon at Johnny Lee Miller; Swoon at the clothes. Are we good? Can we focus now?

EM: Hold please….SWOON (ok, I’m good now)

R: lalalala

EM: Very insightful

R: Shut up. You start.

EM: There are so many elements to this play, most of all the dynamic performance of the two leads, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature.  But first, I think we should set the scene and discuss the set, lights and music.

The set is an interactive turntable that also had a walkway through the audience for the actors to enter from occasionally.  This entrance always represented the society which Dr. Frankenstein inhabited, including the house and the church.

R: You sound really smart. Keep going.

EM: It’s all BS!

R: No, no, it’s brilliance!

EM: I am brilliant!

R: Your mind is superb!!

EM: So true…it is the coffee

R: The lighting was such an interesting element in this show. It really became another actor that the others played off of. From the very beginning of the show it played a role, being the thing which gave the creature life, which frightened the creature, which shone down lovingly on him. It was absolutely exquisite.

EM: Agreed, as I said when we were at the theater, I would love the fixture in my house.  It was this amazing amalgam of different lights and light fixtures and every time it went off it was different.  Sometimes a full flash, sometimes a subtle line of light that danced through the whole.  It was always a harbinger of change though, for good or bad.  So sometimes I wanted that damn light to stay off!

R: Absolutely. The music was another really interesting choice. It was very steampunk for a show that was very period. The initial interlude showing the creature coming into town and his first interactions with people was particularly vivid and almost shocking (to me, anyway) because it was so big and loud. During each scene change the rhythm and sound of that music was imitated. To me it almost added to the scariness of the show and the times.

EM: I agree that the music had a very steampunk vibe to it.  Especially in big scene changes, where the train came in, the wooden piers were being placed or the sled appeared.  These scene changes were big, involved more movement and props.  The music being very industrial and metallic gave the sense of work as well as a sinister sense of “what are they building next?”  I felt that this theme played well into the show at large, since it’s telling the story of a man building something that got away from him.
R: You put that so much better than I did. 🙂

EM: Nope 🙂

R: Are we on to the performance itself?

EM: Performance or themes

R: Let’s do performance and round it out with themes?

EM: Awesome, go…

R: I liked Cumberbatch. He was fabulous. The end.

EM:  Both men were delicious to look at in fitted Victorian garb.  The end

M:Really, that is all you need to say… (EM: we are keeping any and all commentary from this peanut gallery) (R: sorry for the intrusion folks, now you know what we deal with) (M: Don’t be jealous because you know I’m right)

R: Yay!! We are so good at this.

There was such a startling contrast in the ways the leads played the roles, which I had not expected to see. The way that Cumberbatch played the creature and Miller Dr. Frankenstein showcased that Dr. Frankenstein was really the monster. Cumberbatch’s performance showed the frustration the creature felt on being born and abandoned to learn on his own. He learned quickly, but had to go through all the steps to do so. From the very beginning, he was careful and methodical in learning how to walk, how to feel, how to eat, how to speak, etc. He learned how to behave, really, from how he was treated. So while he was treated with kindness, he was kind.
EM:  In the original casting (Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Frankenstein) the monster was all about connections  – learning how to connect to the nerves in his body to learn how to walk, how to connect with people, how to get his point across.  His actions had consequences and he was painfully and acutely aware of them.  He liked learning the philosophy and the history and applied those lessons because he liked the information.  He was created with a fully formed brain, so he learned from those before him and used the information wisely.

This was at odds with the “educated” Dr. Frankenstein who was so disconnected from his world and the consequences of his actions.  He did it because he could and because he is better, smarter and more clever than anyone.  He doesn’t care and he only applies the lessons he wants to acknowledge.  That is why I think  his “punishment” is fitting, he is being outsmarted and being taught how to be human by the thing he created.

R: Ladies – i’m going to lunch. 🙂

EM: What?!?!  Rude

R: Um. Whatever. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten. I’ll get coffee and then we’ll continue. It’ll be fab.

EM: This is all staying in

R: Not a chance. RUDE!

EM: Since I have be ABANDONED (much like Frankenstein’s creature) I shall continue on without her.


EM:  But a keyboard is made of buttons!  I can’t stop!!

M:  Really?  Her stop touching things?  That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.  You may as well have titled this “Do Not Enter”.

EM: You know, truer words have not been said by me or by M.

R: I hate you.

EM: Anyways. (R: Sigh – I expect this to be intact when I return.)  (EM: expect whatever you like) In the reverse casting with Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein, it was almost like watching a different play entirely.

Side note – This is the best conversation ever

M:  Compromise- you will go with me to lunch now.

EM: Deal!

*Hours later, once we have gone to lunch and generally gotten our act together* (M:Relatively)

R: I agree, it was an almost entirely different show. Miller’s portrayal of the creature really showed him to be the monster.

EM: In regards to the creature, I felt like the main difference in Miller’s portrayal was that he was more aggressive.  While Cumberbatch’s creature had the same lines and same background, Miller’s creature used his fully formed brain to learn quickly -not because the information was interesting to him but because it was useful in his desire to manipulate.  Cumberbatch used his education to manipulate as well, but only because he was pushed into that corner as a last resort. Miller’s creature stood on the shoulders of giants (philosophy, history, education) to accomplish something because he could move forward with his own actions, Cumberbatch’s creature stood on those same shoulders and asked if he should continue forward before he did something.  I felt Miller’s portrayal was more like a “creature”, aggressive, selfish and uncaring of what his actions did – like his attack on Elizabeth, whereas Cumberbatch’s creature was more sensitive and truly regretted his actions, in particular in regards to Elizabeth.

R: I agree with that. I would say that it is almost exactly true of each of their portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein as well. Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein was very brash. He looked at his creature as less than him because he had made it and he did not want to take responsibility for the havoc he had wrought. Cumberbatch’s Dr. Frankenstein was much more thoughtful. He seemed to weigh his actions, to look back on them and actually feel regret, whereas Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein did not.

The biggest difference in their portrayals, in my opinion, was their interactions with Elizabeth.

EM: I agree.  Please defend your statement 🙂

R: Rude! I wasn’t done and I got distracted!

Miller was very derisive of the concept of love and of following normal conventions. The thought of producing children to create life was also repugnant to him, as he saw himself able to create life directly. Cumberbatch seemed more to want to understand love. He wanted to love Elizabeth and he almost could have except he did not quite connect, but you could feel that he was sort of on that edge of being able to. He was much more gentle in his interactions with Elizabeth and much more willing to touch her and be near her than Miller was. In Miller’s portrayal, it seemed like he did not understand that the creature would come to kill Elizabeth after the wedding as he was so egotistical as to believe the creature only wanted to destroy him. In Cumberbatch’s portrayal, he understood that the creature would want to kill his wife as Frankenstein had killed the creature’s wife. There seemed to be more desperation in his actions.

Copyright catherine ashmore

EM: Agreed.  Miller’s Frankenstein only wanted children because it was expected of him, not because he wanted to be a father in any traditional sense.  He also was a terrible “father” to this creature as he abandoned him based on looks (which annoys me cause he looks the same alive as dead, so this was a surprise how?) and then only was interested in fulfilling the creatures request because it was a challenge to his scientific mind, not out of any sense of duty.  In both roles Miller was bold strokes, aggressive and brash.

Cumberbatch was a Frankenstein that was curious and intrigued by this idea of “love” in that is is something that needs to be described and his “superb mind” could not rationally understand.  He wanted to know, but whether because he wanted love or just to understand is not made clear.  Much like his monster, his portrayals of each character was a more thoughtful and intellectually curious.  His characters were each more subtle, reserved and detailed.

R: Yes.

EM: I feel like we should wrap this up as it is getting long.  I also feel like M. should monitor these conversations more often.

R: I think this was “getting long” about 10 days ago. I like the sound of “M.” It’s very mysterious.

EM: If we have an “M.” I think it makes us the secret agents with a license to kill, right?  (M:  Of course I do)

R: Secret, agent man. Secret, agent man. They’ve given you a number, and taken away your name.

EM: Am I the only one who thought that  was “secret Asian man” when they were little?

R: Yes.  M: Yes

EM: M. How do you feel on this project we have recruited you to join?

M:  Where?
I think if you were more consistent in focusing on the work, I would have been able to heckle more, as this is my expertise.   Clearly.

EM: There are so many colorful cursors right now I have no idea what is going on.  Feel free to heckle after the fact.  Insert heckles as needed 🙂

R: Focusing has never really been our strong suit. As evidenced by this discussion.

ANYWAY. To wrap things up. The show was absolutely spectacular. You can hardly see one version without seeing the other, as to do so would be a disservice to the production and to yourself.

I would like to resume swooning now, if you please.

EM: Feel free to commence swooning.

R: Swoon.

Can we even post this? Is this even postable?

EM: Let’s leave that decision to our comments section.

M:  Also, on an unrelated note- I am impressed that there was such a benefit to seeing both productions.  It has been quite the enlightening read.  Potentially more so if this stupid program didn’t keep freezing on me.

EM: The great “M” has spoken! We are done  (M: Oooo the POWER!)

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