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Review: NT Live Frankenstein: Cumberbatch Edition

Some points to get out of the way:

First, the last time I functionally read Frankenstein was middle school, so I what I remember of Victor and the Creature are largely colored by the Rocky Horror Picture Show (which inspired me to read the book to begin with) and Young Frankenstein, neither of which are faithful retellings.

Second, I am not a Cumberbatch fan (Cumberbitches). I think he is weird looking. I am not a anglo/britophile. I don’t watch Sherlock (yet… Although I was staunchly opposed to Doctor Who until I learned that constantly changing the main actor is part of the story line, rather than a ploy for better ratings–second Becky, Lexx, the mom from Family Matters). I feel like his acting, that I have seen, relies heavily on pregnant pauses, his cheekbones, and that squinty face he makes that is supposed to show some emotion other than constipation, but, for me, doesn’t. He looks like a Milo Manara drawing, and lets just say that Manara focuses all of his aesthetics on the ladies.

Last of the disclaimer section–I really like Jonny Lee Miller, but he had faded into my memory as the only mainstream actor to make the untinted bleach-blonde hair and dark eyebrows thing work until I recently saw him in Dark Shadows playing (surprise) an asshole.

I vaguely remember seeing the preview for the National Theater Live production of Frankenstein while seeing either Black Swan or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (in which Gary Oldman, who is one of the most versatile–not to mention one of my personal favorite–actors, and Colin Firth out shown my confusion and annoyance at the US surge in Cumberbatch popularity) and being intrigued by the concept behind it. The Creature is adapted closer to the Shelley version–an accelerated microcosm of human experience, a man–rather than the bumbling, stumbling monster that is representative in pop culture.

Danny Boyle, of Slumdog Millionaire and 2012 Olympics fame, chose to use two rather famous and popular actors and, rather than have them each play one role, they would each play the main role for one showing. So, Cumberbatch and Sickboy each play Victor and the Creature, lending their own interpretation to each role. When the re-release was advertised at Amherst Cinema, my step-mom, an avid Sherlock fan, asked if any number of us would be interested in attending either showing.

I was planning to attend the Jonny Lee Miller centric showing…with him in the role of Victor. As it turns out, this adaptation of the book is very heavy on the Creature, and very light on the Creator. So, I inadvertantly saw the version that was more focused on Cumberbatch.

Aside from the extremely awkward opening scene that I refer to as the worst break dancing ever, Cumberbatch’s performance as the Creature was incredible. Without the trappings that usually irritate me about his acting, specifically his expressions, were removed by the makeup.

As an introduction to the show, the actors explained a little bit about how they prepared for both roles. Of particular interest to me were the actors’ basis for their portrayals of the Creature. Jonny Lee Miller discussed channeling his toddler son.

Cumberbatch said he studies stroke sufferers and people recovering from TBI (he said people injured in wars, but after watching the performance, it was clear he didn’t mean people injured physically and visibly). Knowing that bit of information about his process left me kind of conflicted.

He learns how to walk (after the aforementioned break dancing scene) in the span of about 10 minutes. There was a lot of seemingly unnecessary tongue flicking. Speech acquisition is interesting. The slurring is a little overboard, but obviously heavily drawn from people with a motor deficiency.

This is where my only major complaint with Cumberbatch as the Creature lies. If  this guy can leap from windows and scale mountains, why does he occasionally forget that the legs bend at the knee. There comes a point where using disability as an influence borders on offensive. While I would normally harp on this point, I will just leave it at this; the rate of skill acquisition and development presented in the first act makes it inconsistent that the Creature would still be having such pronounce motor problems in the second act.

Overall, I found the Cumberbatch portrayal of the Creature moving, which I did not expect. JLM as Victor was (surprise) a navel-gazer and kind of an asshole.

Predictions for the differences between the JLM and Cumberbatch: the two will split the difference in thought about Original Sin as described by De Lacey. Cumberbatch retains the essence of TBI throughout his performance, which makes him fairly sympathetic–believable as learning to do bad things although he is inherently good and being genuinely remorseful. I anticipate that the JLM Creature will not be as remorseful about his bad acts and will skew as more sadistic and hardened. I see the JLM character development as internalizing the memory of being abandoned and all of the compounded injustices that stem from it and allowing those experiences to fully inform his conscious. I guess I anticipate that the JLM Creature will be more calculating about his bad acts, where the Cumberbatch seems to act impulsively and regret those actions almost immediately.

Second showing (with Jonny Lee Miller in the role of the Creature and Cumberbatch in all of his cheek-boney glory as Victor) is on June 30th at Amherst Cinema, so I guess we will see then.