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Review: Frankenstein

IN A fitting Halloween night offering, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival screened the devastatingly powerful National Theatre production of Frankenstein, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature.

The smash hit British 2011 production is notable as a ‘Trainspotting’ reunion of sorts, as it also stars Jonny Lee Miller and was helmed by ‘Trainspotting’ director Danny Boyle.

One of the many unique aspects of this adaptation of the classic story by Mary Shelley is that Cumberbatch and Miller have the capacity to trade roles as the eponymous scientist and his troubled creation, each actor knowing the lines of each character and fully versed in each role.

This mutability no doubt helps inform and reinforce the central struggle for identity of both the Creature and eventually his creator as well, a struggle which forms the basis of this iconic plotline.

In this showing on Halloween night at the Lucas Theatre, we got the treat of Cumberbatch himself as the Creature. It is, quite simply, the performance of a lifetime.

In a lengthy and excruciatingly gripping opening sequence, we literally see the Creature being “born,” alone, the result of an experiment, with Cumberbatch writhing all across the stage in an attempt to master the control of his body and the coordination of his arms and legs.

I was struck by his resemblance to a fish out of water, and it reminded me that humans were originally sea creatures who evolved to live on land. Deep, primal allusions and entry points like this are characteristic of this remarkable play, which is equally remarkably staged in a minimalist yet technologically advanced fashion.

When the Creature finally musters the ability to stand erect, we feel his sense of accomplishment. However, Cumberbatch continues to play the Creature as a bit hampered in coordination and speech, despite the fact that he is a quick learner intellectually, able to read philosophy (Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is key to this) and able to judge the true character of humans with unerring, almost uncanny insight.

The extreme physicality of the role of the Creature is not only an amazing showcase for an actor. It is crucial to depicting the Creature as a Promethian figure, who despite his surface unattractiveness is in touch with an essential physical and psychological strength – the former a product of the laboratory, and the latter a product of society’s rejection of him because of his horrific appearance.

Cumberbatch is incredibly deft with the physical nature of the role. At no point does he hide behind the extensive makeup used; we see and feel the Creature’s raw personality at all times. (And yes, he is clearly recognizable as the Cumberbatch we all know and love.)

Miller is intensely engaging as Victor Frankenstein, a tortured genius (one of the play’s laugh lines is when the Creature calls him a genius sarcastically) with a hole in his heart that cannot be filled even by literally playing God.

The themes of the play involve the most deeply felt subjects imaginable: Existentialism, spirituality, love, betrayal, the murder of children, sexual assault.

The way this production handles these themes, through the essential tension of the symbiotic relationship between the Creator and the Created as well as remarkable stagecraft and lighting, is genius as well.

SCAD and the Lucas will continue to present innovative cinematic screenings of live theatre productions in this vein as part of the theatre's regular season, and it is a particularly pleasing addition to Savannah's cultural menu.