30 June 2012

Theatrical Delights: Review of National Theatre Live's Frankenstein

View of Stratford theatre where I saw Taming of the Shrew in 2008
One of the things the British are known for is amazing theatre.  I was lucky enough to experience it for myself when I went to Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon during a visit to England in 2008, and it will be an experience I will never forget.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, or RSC as it is commonly called, is likely the most recognizable company, but London's West End is the equivalent to New York City's Broadway and the city has many of its own theatrical treats--a haven for theatre-going buffs.  One of the best treats in London has to be the National Theatre.  Settled beautifully on the South bank, the National has featured some of the most memorable plays in recent years.  War Horse to One Man, Two Govnurs, and Frankenstein are just a few  of the plays that have made a splash in one form or another.  The National Theatre now broadcasts their best pieces to theatres around the world via National Theatre Live (NT Live).  As a budding theatre-goer, I was particularly attracted to NT Live's Frankenstein.  If I couldn't be in London, I figured a virtual screening of it would be well worth it.  I was not disappointed.

The unique take on director Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Seconds) Frankenstein delivered an amazing interpretation of Mary Shelley's classic novel.  The production's two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature each night throughout the production making it a different play each time:

Miller's Creature and Cumberbatch's Frankenstein
Last summer, I drove up to Portland to one of the only theatres in the state that wisely chooses to screen NT Live productions, the Third Rail Repertory Theatre.  Being unfamiliar with the original novel or  many screen adaptations, (my only Frankenstein was Gene Wilder's hilarious rendition in Young Frankenstein) I was a true novice and learned the story was actually quite different.

The story I saw was nothing to laugh at, but to genuinely contemplate.  Decisions.  Ethical, moral and even societal which are as true today as they were in the 19th Century.  Questions of science and our role in creation hang in the background of the Creature's self-awareness and growth and subsequent chase to the end of the earth, and seemingly time, with his creator.  In the first minutes, the stage is nothing but the Creature's flailing about in attempts at understanding the patterns of movement and learning to walk with no one to guide him.  A blind man educates him and befriends him, but friendship is fleeting for the Creature, which leads him to commit his first act of revenge.  Seeking a real companion, the Creature returns to his creator only to be disappointed and, once again, seeks revenge on he who hurt him.  An act that leaves both Creature and creator seemingly bound to each other.

Miller's Creature was innocent and childlike.  In fact, one great thing about the virtual screening was a behind the scenes intro where the actors explained their inspirations for their performances.  Miller pointed out that he found inspiration from his toddler; therefore, his movement and speech were indeed childlike allowing me to feel sympathy for the character as I saw my own young niece in his honest and unblemished Creature.  The reactions of society to his seemingly unnatural state made him an altogether different being.  Therefore, it made for an amazing contrast to Cumberbatch's Frankenstein.

As a fan of BBC's Sherlock, Cumberbatch's Victor Frankenstein was, for me, a mirror image of the great detective.  That's not a bad thing, in fact, it's a performance that's full of vigor and madness, but also humanity--particularly at the end.  Victor Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes could almost be seen as similar creatures.  Both of them locked into science to do their work and ground their beliefs.  So, though it was an excellent performance, I felt like I had seen it before and, ultimately, the combination of Miller's child-like Creature and Cumberbatch's Holmesian Dr. Frankenstein left me feeling like I had watched an odd episode of Sherlock, instead of a piece of theatre.  In the end, I enjoyed it, but I was left wondering how the other version turned out and how I would have reacted to it.  

A view of the South Bank and the
National Theatre worthy of Frankenstein.Photo courtesy of a friend in
London, Heidi Ober.

Cumberbatch's Creature and Miller's Frankenstein
Last weekend, I had the good fortune to see that other version.  After a hearty meal at one of the few Brit pubs in town, I was able to go to an encore viewing of Frankenstein via NT Live and Third Rail Repertory Theater.  If I had to choose between one of the two as the better piece of theatre, this version would be my pick.  The story was exactly the same so I did focus more on the brilliant technicalities of the staging and lighting.  Unfortunately, a virtual screening does not do the scenery justice, but I could tell that the bunch of simple strings of light bulbs, a modern soundtrack, and the sparing use of scenery set an unforgettable stage.  Not to mention a turning and raising piece of the stage!  The technical aspects benefited both versions and was an added dimension that I'd never seen in a play.

Cumberbatch's Creature was exquisite.  That's the only word for it.  A completely different interpretation and performance to his co-star which seemed to make the play tell a different, yet familiar, story.  Cumberbatch revealed, in the behind the scenes intro, that his interpretation of the Creature came from adults who had to re-learn movement and speech a second time in contrast to a child learning them for the first time.  The difference in the two performances was evident in the first scene. I was grateful for the close camera angles as Cumberbatch's body twisted and writhed in the attempts to learn and master movement (he'll make one heck of a Smaug!).  In contrast to Miller's speech pattern which, much like a child, seemed to improve upon more practice, Cumberbatch visibly continued to struggle with speech even after learning to read.  Even with the role of the Creature switched the themes and questions posed were still evident.  The societal outcast and abandoned creation of Frankenstein was even more sympathetic this time around due to the continued clear and striking difficulties manifested by the Creature.

Miller's Victor Frankenstein was a calmer, more controlled version in my eyes.  His dedication and belief in his work was still there; however this creator appeared to be more frightened and unsure of what to make of his creation, as opposed to the wild, fast-talking Frankenstein portrayed by his co-star.  All in all, my preferred version of play.  The RSC released a recorded version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart on disc and I have enjoyed it despite not being able to see the original.  If the National Theatre were to do something similar, they would already have one sale!  And, if Frankenstein ever gets to Broadway, as War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors have done, a trip to New York may be warranted.

Both versions of Frankenstein were worth an outing for this theatre-goer and I wouldn't have missed any of them.  I am only slightly disappointed I couldn't be in the London audience last year.

04 June 2012

Doylian Delights: Doyle's former home--Undershaw--saved from development!

Undershaw Saved!
in Oregon adds its voice to the campaign.
The local Baker Street Irregular scion

At 2:30am on the 30th of May I was still up and, it turns out, it was a good thing because I got to hear the news when those of us on this side of the Atlantic who cared where either tucked away in bed or maybe starting their day. 

A cause that had become important to me a couple of years ago--the preservation of Conan Doyle's residence Undershaw, came to a head last week with a judicial review in London's Royal Courts of Justice. On  April 23 the Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT), an organization dedicated to preserving the building, went to court to oppose a decision that would grant permission for the property to be split up into nine separate homes.  The Trust was backed and supported by a global campaign of people from around the world who did not want to see the author's home destroyed for future generations.  After a day in court, the judges took the opportunity to delay the decision.  The judgement could have taken as long as two months, but a week later a judgement was announced that planning permission 'must be quashed' because of  'legal flaws' during the process.  

John Gibson, a Conan Doyle scholar who helped found UPT, reacted to the news by saying that it had been a long and difficult battle, but he was thrilled with the decision to 'quash planning permission to redevelop the property'.  

He also said, " Conan Doyle's life and works are a fundamental part of British culture and arguably their stock has never been higher.  We have been absolutely delighted to see enthusiasts from across the world get in touch and pledge their support to our efforts."

What's next?

Now that the permission has been halted, what's next for the Trust and Undershaw?   The Trust continues to work on preservation by submitting an application for an upgrade in status from grade II to grade I.  What does that mean?  According to the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport website,   a grade II buildings are noted as 'special interest'.  It means the building is 'protected against unauthorized demolition, altering or extension', which means if proper channels are taken then it allowed to be changed.  Grade I is a building with 'exceptional interest' and could not be changed under any means. There are several criteria for each listing.  Undershaw has been listed as grade II since 1977.  

The ultimate goal for the property would be to see it preserved as a single building, and as a museum or centre for future generations.  Claude Monet's home at Giverny outside Paris, France, and Horta's home in Brussels, Belgium, have been restored and converted into just such sites of cultural and historic information.  Having visited Giverny myself and being an enthusiat, I would love to see Undershaw preserved and restored in such a fashion.  I would pilgrim to England PDQ to experience the place where Conan Doyle worked, lived and wrote and resurrected perhaps his most (in)famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.  I am happy to have done what I could do (and will continue) for this worthy cause.  Yay, Yay, Yay!