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Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein

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Left: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Creature)
Jonny Lee Miller (Victor Frankenstein)
Right: Jonny Lee Miller (The Creature)
Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor Frankenstein)
Photos by Catherine Ashmore

Adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, The National Theatre in London was savvy enough to film this production for the balconies in America and the rest of the world.  If you’re a fan of the BBC series Sherlock, invest the time and money to see the film or rent the dvd when it’s available. Why?  The story, the acting, the theatrical setting, it’s all great. It’s a straight theatre show so might actually bore some folks but it’s fun to see Mr. Cumberbatch play one of those roles which Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder cautioned  Ben Stiller about playing. That would be the “special person”, the handicapped one with the odds against him. Not every actor can pull it off but some get awards for it. These guys did.

The creature appeared to me to be like a man who was damaged, not just by his lack of parents but through the unlikely survival of his birth.  I was reminded of  the folks like me, and possibly you, who might have been dead a hundred years ago if not for modern medications and procedures. I particularly thought of how many war veterans may return to a society who is so obsessed with conventional beauty  and “normal” parameters of behavior that they are considered monsters of sorts.

I read a few things about the show online  which made me think. Cumberbatch says the show is about bad parenting.  This is too simplistic for me unless we want to get all Universal and label God a bad parent.  I’m guessing Cumberbatch didn’t have bad parents because being abandoned by your father and being nurtured by a blind man doesn’t seem so harsh to me. I really don’t know what it would be like to be the only one in the world without a biological mother but I bet someone will as soon as science gets around to it. I will admit that my view is skewed as I have been in therapy of one kind or another for decades and have become a therapist so I have heard a number of more dramatic tales than this. Blaming the bad parent is common but  makes little sense since the monster might have just as easily absorbed the emotional lessons the blind man gave him as he did the intellectual ones. Everyone thinks that they are the only one of their kind, with the saddest fate possible. I think this is nearer to the crux of the story than bad parenting. It reminds me that Cumberbatch is a fine actor but I’m not sure if he’s a good psychologist. Although, that said, many people, myself included, chase after the parent who has abandoned us in various ways all of our lives. Some of us eventually find that parent within ourselves. Scary!  Aversion itself is an intense form of attachment which is certainly at play between the two leads in this production.

The next point I would like to differ on is that Doctor Frankenstein and The Monster are polar opposites of one another or mirror images. I would say, like father and son, they are very similar. They both appear to be intellectually gifted but emotionally stunted. There is a line where The Doctor’s father says Frankenstein was such a lively young boy which reminded me of Cumberbatch’s first moments as the monster, learning to walk like a toddler, feeling the rain, the grass. But when The Monster can’t control the feelings of others he needs to change them by destroying them. The Doctor would also like to create a human he can control. At first the chaos of the world is enticing to them and then as the chaos turns on them as it will, they attempt to control it with violence and mechanisation.

I thought the major difference between The Monster and The Doctor was that The Monster acted as if his temper were the result of a severe brain injury as might be expected in having an entire head transplant! The Doctor has no such excuse so his violence, though less physical and more emotional, is also less forgivable. It appears as though Viktor’s desire to question and break rules is a reaction to his father being a magistrate. Has that relationship then wrought the fate of the entire family down to The Creature? Doubtful.

One review said that Cumberbatch was not as effective in the role of The Monster as Mr. Miller was.I can imagine this might be true. I found Cumberbatch very interesting to watch but only sympathetic on an intellectual level.  It was the situation, the missed connections and longing for love from those who could not give it which I found sad.  The film was long and depressing, as it should be, so I could not convince myself to buy a ticket for the next night to see Miller as The Monster. I’m sure Cumberbatch would be a great Viktor as he plays a nasty intellectual so well on Sherlock.

As far as theatre goes,  I can see why it still thrives in Britain while we Americans have favored films. Theatre requires  the kind of work that most audiences here are not used to doing. I was exhausted after watching this film. Yet it works because the actors are working a hundred times harder than we are and you can smell their sweat. No matter what film actors tell you, it’s not the same. When the train ploughed onto the stage I was wondrous, when the fire was lit I was mesmerized. The light piece, which is the feature of several scenes, is at once lovely and frightening. When I watch special effects in most films they leave me cold as they are trying too hard to convince me. It takes much trust but few materials to do this.Perhaps  theatre is too expensive for the majority of people in the U.S. and can’t be mass produced like most of our products. Or maybe, as Mr. Cumberbatch says, it’s just a result of bad parenting.

I have been a mediocre actor, but a good comedian for years. I’ve seen many plays and know that this is a piece that feels epic in scope. I remember an acting class where we were told that all good theatre is about  sex, death and God. This one is. Don’t miss it. Let me leave you with one last image “KHAAAAAANNNNNN!”


About polarflares

My head is so big because it has so many holes and air gets in.

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