National Theatre Live is a brilliant idea in theory. The productions get filmed and then get screened in venues all around the world, which means that you can get to see shows without paying for a ticket to London and queuing up and fighting with the tweed-wearing doddery theatregoer outside The National Theatre. Instead, plays like Danny Boyle’s “Frankenstein” can be seen at the cost of a cab ride and Rs. 300 at NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai, for example. Plus, instead of paying in pounds sterling for a pre-show drink, you can toddle up to Suzette, have a delicious butter sugar crepe and a cafe noisette, and then saunter in to see the play. It’s a beautiful, beautiful set up.
Of course, watching a play like a movie has its problems. Sitting a few feet away from the stage and getting to feel the actors and see the entire set has a magic about it, especially when the set and effects are as spectacular as what director Danny Boyle has come up with in “Frankenstein”. Hovering over the stage are a cluster of Victorian-looking lightbulbs that look incredible even when they’re not lit up. The impact of seeing a huffing and puffing steam engine (made of mostly people) come roaring out at you is bound to be so much stronger when it’s seen live and up close, rather than on screen. I was prepared for such shortcomings when I waded through some serious rain (gorgeous, gorgeous weather; remarkably London-y, which was rather fitting) to reach NCPA to watch the first of the National Theatre Live screenings in Bombay.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the following:
1. Bombay Times photographers
2. People in formal wear (NCPA is not precisely the opera; mostly people show up in various states of hipster dishevelment.)
3. Anil Kapoor, in a pin-striped suit and a polka dotted pocket kerchief.
4. Being very underwhelmed by “Frankenstein”.
Points 1 and 2 were very bizarre. Point 3 was hilarious, particularly when Anil Kapoor, chief guest, pranced down from his back row seat to come to the front of the audience and read out a speech (written on orange cue cards that sort of matched his reading glasses). The point of this post, however, is point 4.
“Frankenstein” has had rave reviews. Everyone’s loved it, despite the “plodding script” (as The Telegraph termed Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel). It’s Boyle’s direction that saves the play from the death trap of its flawed script, according to most reviewers. Benedict Cumberbatch, who deserves to be a star just for that name as far as I’m concerned, and Jonny Lee Miller have received fulsome praise for their performances. Boyle came up with the idea of making the actors switch between playing Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on alternate nights. So on one night Cumberbatch would play Frankenstein and Miller would be the Creature. On the next night, Miller would be Frankenstein and Cumberbatch, the Creature. It’s a superb idea, especially for a play that is about the conflict between the creator and the created. For the National Theatre Live version, it was Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein. I don’t think I’ve seen Miller in anything before but I absolutely loved Cumberbatch in “Sherlock“. That tv show, which updates the Conan Doyle mysteries into contemporary times — Watson has a blog in which he writes about Sherlock’s escapades — in general is quite genius. I imagined Cumberbatch would make a fantastic Frankenstein.
“Frankenstein” began with Cumberbatch coming out of an embryo-like sphere and, in a loincloth, writhing about on stage. That went on for what felt like 15 minutes but may have been less. Then Frankenstein (Miller) enters the scene. There’s barely an enounter between him and the Creature and lights go out. A steam engine comes roaring onto stage. The Creature, who has nothing more than Frankenstein’s journal, a loincloth and some stole clothes to his name, gets thrashed about by some random people. Then the Creature discovers sun, rain, hunger, eats grass and earth, tastes cooked rabbit, gets beaten up again. Somehow or the other, the Creature comes across DeLacey, a blind professor who lives with his son and daughter in-law. DeLacey and the Creature become friends, and DeLacey teaches the Creature philosophy, poetry and such hi-falutin’ things. When DeLacey’s son and daughter in-law see the Creature, however, they react less favourably and rather violently. Furious, the Creature burns their house down, killing them all. Next, we see the Creature in Geneva, Frankenstein’s home town. Fortuitously, he chances upon a little boy who happens to be Frankenstein’s kid brother. The boy is killed. When Frankenstein and his father find his body, it’s in a floating boat. Along with the corpse are a few torn pages from Frankenstein’s old journal. Frankenstein, who is to be married soon, realises the Creature has killed the boy. He goes up to the mountains and the first proper meeting between Frankenstein and the Creature takes place. At the end of it, Frankenstein agrees to make the Creature a bride because the Creature’s major angst is that he’s lonely. The Creature promises Frankenstein that if the scientist will make him a mate, then the Creature and his bride will become traceless. Frankenstein pushes his own wedding back and goes off to Scotland to make a mate for the Creature. He makes a beautiful bride for the Creature and then kills her, telling the Creature that he can’t risk letting loose two monsters who could fill the world with baby monsters. The Creature retaliates by raping and killing Frankenstein’s fiancée, even though she’s the first human since DeLacey to treat him kindly. The play ends with Frankenstein chasing the Creature around the Arctic Circle.
Never mind the fact that this adaptation moves in spasms, rather than like a coherent story. The story leapfrogs from scene to scene without really explaining how the plot progressed to point B from point A. For example, at the end of the play, one moment we hear Frankenstein’s father (who is a magistrate) order that Frankenstein be restrained; next thing you know, Frankenstein’s wrapped up in furs, following the Creature around in the Arctic Circle. Why bother to explain how this has transpired?
Let’s also ignore the fact that the play feels very, very long. Perhaps when you see it unfolding before you, the spectacle of the play makes up for the length. Also, irrespective of length and the episodic quality of the script, there are some fabulous moments in “Frankenstein”. The embryo looked amazing and made for a powerful beginning to the show. The ceiling made of lightbulbs flaring from time to time is fabulous and got me every time. The steam engine was wonderful. There’s no doubt that Boyle created some fantastic visual moments in “Frankenstein”. DeLacy (Karl Johnson) was absolutely charming and a lovely combination of wit, sensitivity and erudition. He had some great lines and he delivered them well. Like when the Creature warbles something that is pretty much incoherent and DeLacey says, “That’s Milton.” The scenes showing DeLacy and the Creature’s friendship are the best part of the play and the credit for that goes to Johnson.
Aside from Johnson, everyone’s performance seemed hammy to me. Cumberbatch, in particular, was proper annoying. He spoke in a weird intonation and flapped around in what was meant to be Creature-ish but actually looked like a bad imitation of a cerebral palsy patient. Supposedly, the Creature is like a sponge, soaking in everything that he sees around him. If that’s the case, he should speak like DeLacey and the villagefolk he comes across, shouldn’t he? Instead he sounds weird and mechanised. Miller’s Frankenstein had just one emotion: rage. When he meets the Creature, he’s angry. When he speaks to his fiancée, he’s angry. When he has a talk with his father, he’s angry. The scientist feels nothing other than that one emotion, apparently.
“Frankenstein” felt simplistic and melodramatic, especially in comparison to Mary Shelley’s novel. I haven’t read it in about 15 years, so it’s possible I’ll hate it when I re-read it but I remember there was logic to what happened in the story. There was a sense of cause and effect, perhaps not obviously drawn out but cleverly suggested. For example, Frankenstein lost his mother at an impressionable age and became interested in creating life. The fact that he creates the Creature and abandons him is a curious parallel to the fact that Frankenstein feels like his mother abandoned him when she died. Boyle’s “Frankenstein” seemed to lack subtlety and I don’t know if that’s because I saw a screening instead of a live performance. I didn’t really feel any kind of connection to the characters, especially because they didn’t have any development. The Creature was sensitive and misunderstood from the moment he was born and remained much the same till the end. Boyle wasn’t really interested in showing us how he watched human behaviour. Similarly, Frankenstein doesn’t go through any sort of transformation. He just rants, hates the Creature, rants, hates the Creature, and so on. There were moments when some of Shelley’s subtelties and layers could be glimpsed but it was only moments and they were too few.
I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there’s something about the way Boyle tells stories that doesn’t sit very well with me. “127 Hourse”, for example, I found boring. I appreciate the audacity of the idea of making a film about a very unvisual subject but so far as the story was concerned, I was largely unmoved. There was no development. The film began by showing us the central character is a daredevil and a fool; the fact that he got trapped the way he did proved this hypothesis, and by the end of it, not much seemed to have changed except that because he’d sawed off his arm he had become heroic. “Slumdog Millionaire” was a series of coincidences and had a bad-Bollywood-esque flavour. Like “127 Hours”, it had some fantastic cinematography and wonderful music but so far as story and character went, it was flat and boring. “Frankenstein” fits with these movies perfectly. I’m just glad I didn’t have to go to London and shell out foreign exchange for it.