November 24th, 2018

National Theater Live: King Lear

We had to go and see Ian McKellen do King Lear, so caught the video replay of it at the Downer Theater on Sunday the 21st. Although the presentation runs four hours with a 20 minute interval, the time seemed to go quickly, and maintained our attention throughout.

Although excellent, I have to say I did not find it the most moving Lear I have seen. Partly, I think it may have been the modern dress, which, as I have mentioned regarding the recent APT production, does not, in my opinion work well for this show. In part, I think that it may have been a slightly lower-key production. McKellen is a marvelous actor, capable of great subtlety of expression, and the movie format with its close-ups worked well to emphasize that. It seemed that in order to play up that strength, the Lear portrayed was an angry, demented, old man who also got tired quickly--. (Actually, considering the length of the show and the fact that McKellen gets 2000 liters of water rained on him in the storm scene, he has amazing strength and stamina for his age, still being able to carry the ‘dead’ Cordelia on stage in the last scene.) Playing up fine detail seemed to result in less energy overall, although there was much in this play (possibly in part because of its uncut length) that we had not seen before.

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National Theater Live: Frankenstein

Monday evening, October 22nd, we finally got to see a replay of the National Theater Live production of “Frankenstein,” starring Benedict Cumberbach as “The Creature,” and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein. (Cumberbach and Miller alternated roles in this production.)

The adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, by Nick Dear, puts The Creature as protagonist. As the show opens, we see him escaping from an artificial womb-like structure. No one else is on stage as he twitches, flops, and writhes, gradually gaining control of his limbs. Frankenstein enters, is appalled, and flees. The creature attempts to follow him, but finds himself in a Steampunk hell. He is dazzled by the stars, delighted by the sun’s warmth—abused and beaten by the people he encounters.

The plot follows the classic arc of the novel, with some surprising additions that do a lot for the story: we found it all very powerful.

In a pre-show feature, Cumberbach related that he had studied people who had suffered brain trauma and other profound injuries and how they had come back from them. The creature as portrayed strikes a balance between the mute monster of the movies and the more erudite being of Shelley’s novel. He is intelligent and self-taught, but still suffers neurological deficits that affect his speech, and an unsocialized, often child-like affect.

The script makes Victor Frankenstein at some times more monstrous than his creation. He has the arrogance and self-justification of the true mad scientist, and is capable of acts of terrible cruelty.

Victor’s cousin and fiancé, Elizabeth (Naomie Harris), has a larger and more affecting part than usual, which we found very effective.

All in all, this was an extremely powerful and well-done performance. The production, mounted at the Barbican Theater complex, made excellent use of the main stage’s impressive facilities, and had very innovative and clever set effects.

I appreciated Cumberbach’s extensive, most-of-body makeup, which resembled an accident victim, post-autopsy.  

(Quibble: why would Frankenstein, who’s supposed to be capable of doing implant and transplant surgery barely possible today, finish off with crude stitches that look like they were done by the coroner’s assistant? This, of course is the horror movie convention: in Shelley’s novel she does not go into detail about the creation process, but the creature is not horrible because it looks like a patchwork of corpse parts:

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”  Those who have seen the TV show Penny Dreadful may recognize the description of “John Clare,” one of the most Shelley-like versions of the creature.)

Very highly recommended.

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