March 24, 2011
#7—Frankenstein & Friends

Two days of rehearsal last week with our trio, doing rough blocking. Starting with the storyboard, but in many cases making radical departures as soon as we find that a great idea on paper doesn’t look so great when transferred into reality. But the storyboard provides the spine, and it basically works. Since we don’t have a stage manager, it’s frustrating to stop so often to write down staging in all its detail, but otherwise it’ll be forgotten. Next rehearsals coming up on Saturday and Sunday.

We have a costumer now. First meeting next week or thereabouts.

Tuesday we went to a theatrical telecast of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Frankenstein, a huge London hit directed by Danny Boyle, with script by Nick Dear. I’m glad to have seen it, pretty much agree with the critics that the staging is quite wonderful, the script terrible, and the Creature’s performance quite astonishing.

I can’t pretend to be unbiased regarding the script, of course, and I’m not the one to make a case against deviations from the novel. Problem for me is that as dramaturgy the scenes are shapeless and much of the dialogue on the level of an educational play about dental hygiene—gets said what needs to get said, but that’s about it. It’s commendable that there’s some hint of Mary Shelley’s own background as daughter of prominent freethinkers, but in clunky, tacked-on language. And it’s commendable that the Creature is given a voice, as in the novel.

Like most adaptations, Victor becomes a dull, one-note character: he’s obsessed with his mission and his genius, but we really have no idea why except that the story is supposed to be about the dangers of science or some such thing. But the poor actor has little to play except rant, rant harder, and rant hardest.

Indeed, Victor inevitably comes off as a bit of a twit in his flight from responsibility, his neglect of Elizabeth, and his infinite self-absorption—not unlike Percy Shelley in many ways—and our own adaptation even underlines this for comic effect. And for me in playing him, it’s a special challenge in that I often play dry, tormented but emotionally distant men, and it’s very easy for him to fall into a well-worn groove. But somehow I have to discover how an audience can feel empathy with him even as his floundering destroys everything around him.

This performance of the Creature involves a physicalization somewhat based on cerebral palsy victims, very contorted and hyperactive, sometimes coming into more control. It’s a remarkable feat of physical execution by an actor with a beautiful physique, and along with the scenic effects make it clear why it’s a hit.

For me, though, the performance is self-defeating. I could never stop thinking, Wow, what an incredible performance, and instead actually feel deeply for the Creature. And the choice of the physicalization in combination with the make-up—a bit of scarring and dirt smudges, but no actual deformity—makes it puzzling, on a realistic level, that the sight of him so shocks those who come in contact with him. The thinking seems to be that his palsied contortions are intrinsically terrifying, but as this leads us to think realistically, it’s hardly credible, given that any Londoner could probably have seen beggars on the street in worse condition every day.

It’s a good idea not to resort to the monster-makeup of the movies, as Shelley is very vague about his actual appearance. But it seems to me that as soon as we lead the audience into thinking realistically, then our realistic answer has to be air-tight. My own solution has been to make it entirely a “metaphoric” reaction to a creature whose sin is that he looks completely human, beautiful, in fact. The deformity is what others project upon him, and what he soon internalizes. We’ll see how that works.

Still, it was useful to see this production—well worth seeing despite my complaints—and I was immensely relieved that it bears not the remotest resemblance to anything we contemplate doing.

— Conrad