When I saw Phèdre, the first production by Britain’s National Theatre to be simulcast to theaters worldwide via the company’s NT Live program, my impression was that though it was gratifying to be able to see such a world-class production without leaving Minnesota, translating a stage production directly to the screen was a challenging endeavor that the company had not quite mastered: the actors were calibrating their performances to a big house, but they were being shown to us in intimate close-ups that made them look like they were awkwardly overacting.
The NT Live program is now wrapping up its second season, and the screening of Frankenstein last Sunday at the Guthrie demonstrated a huge leap forward in sophistication and finesse. The screen direction by Tim Van Someren was fluid and sophisticated, and though you didn’t forget that you were watching a film rather than a play—there’s no substitute for live theater—the translation didn’t distract from one’s enjoyment of the sizzling production.
Though I don’t know how strong a hand stage director Danny Boyle took in the shaping of Frankenstein‘s film translation, it can’t have hurt that he’s an Oscar-winning film director known for helming movies including Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours. The National Theatre’s Frankenstein was described in a video introduction as the hottest ticket in London; we were informed that theatergoers hoping for evening tickets start queuing at 1 a.m. Besides the fame of Boyle and playwright Nick Dear—a longtime Boyle collaborator—the production features the added gimmick of having actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switch off, night by night, in the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature.
However high their expectations, attendees are unlikely to be leaving disappointed. This is a raw and compelling adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, seizing onto not only the theme of science gone awry but onto fundamental questions of human nature and free will. In a documentary excerpt screened before the play, Boyle and Dear note that their production restores the Creature’s voice: instead of the dull mumble made famous by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film, this Creature learns to speak quite articulately, and uses his voice to needle his unmerciful creator.
Though the story shambles a bit towards the second half, with several false endings, scene by scene the show works brilliantly. The Creature—played by Miller in the performance screened at the Guthrie—is portrayed as vulnerable and tortured, a Christlike martyr to the hubris of the creator whose destruction he ultimately vows to bring about. Mark Tildesley’s set is visually simple but surprisingly supple, with set elements rising from a rotating disc in the center of the cirular stage. Here’s hoping the Dear script is produced in the Twin Cities sometime soon; until then, we can be thankful to have had this very fine film translation of Boyle’s stunning production as a most welcome window across the Pond.