Don’t go looking for Boris Karloff or any kind of campy make-up if you decide to see the National Theatre of London’s production of Frankenstein on Tuesday or Wednesday evening at The Carnegie in Covington. This version, provided via HD digital transmission, is much more faithful to Mary Godwin’s creepy and profound Gothic novel written in the summer of 1816. When it was finally published two years later (by which time she had married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and become Mary Shelley), few people believed it could have been written by a young woman not yet 20 years old.
In a preface to an edition of the novel in 1831, she wrote that it was the result of a single, terrible nightmare about a crazed young doctor, “a pale student of unhallowed arts,” who had assembled a creature from human body parts and brought it to life, thinking it would be the first of a beautiful and perfect new race. In her nightmare, Mary saw “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the workings of some powerful machine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
That frightening vision surely served as an inspiration for Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein for the National Theatre in London earlier this year. Using a new stage adaptation by Nick Dear, Boyle used actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl and the recent Sherlock series on PBS) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Aeon Flux) to play the central roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. In fact, they alternate the roles from one night to the next, and the HD transmissions offered at the Carnegie give you the chance to see each actor in each role. (Cumberbatch will play the Creature and Miller will be Frankenstein on Tuesday evening; on Wednesday, Miller fills the role of the Creature, while Cumberbatch is the “pale student of unhallowed arts.)
I watched preview screenings of both versions, and it’s a remarkable piece of acting. The opening 10 minutes or so show the horrifying tenacity of the Creature to progress from an almost helpless being flops uncontrollably on the floor like a fish to a man who walks upright, overcoming horrifying physical malformations. He is childlike in his innocence but terribly grotesque — stitched together and malformed in frightening ways. He meets cruelty wherever he goes, lost in a hostile universe. Mary Shelley’s disturbing tale explores concerns of scientific responsibility, parental neglect and especially the nature of good and evil. Boyle’s stage version of this is presented with incredible imagination and visual creativity. It’s the kind of theater we seldom get to see in Cincinnati.
I’ve viewed two previous National Theatre Live transmissions at The Carnegie: Hamlet in December and the Afropop musical Fela! in February. Both were engaging, but Frankenstein tops them in my book. Cumberbatch and Miller turn in such physically compelling and morally complex performances that I have to recommend that serious theatergoers go see both evenings. It’s that good. You won’t be able to take your eyes off these magnetic actors and what they are doing onstage.
Tickets ($16 in advance, $20 at the door) are available from the Carnegie Center’s box office (859-957-1940) or online at www.cincyworldcinema.org. The Carnegie is one of more than 300 venues around the world participating in National Theatre Live; Cincinnati World Cinema and the Carnegie are the sole presenters in the Cincinnati area. The Acclaim Awards have supported the acquisition of these presentations, and for each ticket purchased, $1 will return to the local theater awards program to support other activities.