For the past year, some of the most exciting theater in St. Louis has been delivered via a movie screen. The Tivoli Theatre has been hosting "NT Live," transmissions of England's National Theatre productions. (The Tivoli is the only movie theater in Missouri where these plays can be seen.) Last year's staging of Dion Boucicault's 1841 comedy London Assurance provided an irrepressible romp, and last month's Hamlet was inventively reconsidered. For the next two Saturday mornings, the National's electrifying adaptation of Mary Shelley's 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein will be on view, and it is a corker.
It is not, however, a horror story. Despite the fact that Shelley's novel concerns a scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who robs graves to secure the body parts he needs to create a living being, there is nothing gruesome, grisly or remotely sensationalistic here. (Don't expect to see Boris Karloff, or anything akin.) No one needs to worry about having to avert his eyes. To the contrary, you might find it impossible to divert your eyes, because what's happening in front of them is so hypnotic. The staging is filled with allusions to other plays and films — The Elephant Man, the Hal Prince version of Sweeney Todd and "the dawn of man" sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind — yet the experience is completely original.
Conceived by film director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), this intermissionless Frankenstein feels like a movie — yet at the same time it is very theatrical. The play clocks in at a trim two hours, a typical running length for many films. Boyle has staged the show to flow like a film; scenes often transition through smash cuts, a common movie technique. Like the best moviemakers, Boyle is more comfortable telling his story through visuals than dialogue. So it is that in the play's first fifteen minutes, you can count the speeches on one hand. Instead the story of the Monster's creation is conveyed through light (the opening scene evokes Stonehenge bathed by a burning sun), as well as through striking music and sound devised by the British electronic group Underworld. Even as the Creature spills out of a chrysalis that could have been designed for Cirque du Soleil, the entire theater is stirred by a vibration that might be a heartbeat or a pulse — or the muted ticking of a time bomb that's destined to explode.
The script by Nick Dear (best known for his screenplay of Jane Austen's Persuasion) has taken its lumps from critics in both London and New York, who have accused it of being overly simplistic. I find it to be consistent with Boyle's visual approach. The uneasy (and ever changing) relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, as well as the Monster's pitiable search for love, are expressed more effectively through images than words. To that end, the National Theatre stage turns out to be more elaborate than most Hollywood soundstages. As the show proceeds, we are treated to fire, rain, snow.
Much has been made of the fact that two well-known actors — Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch — alternate as Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature. Presumably we are to conclude from this that there's at least a trace of monster in the best of us, a spark of intelligence in the most monstrous of us. Or perhaps it's just a stunt to get viewers to see the show twice — though that ploy is no longer needed in London, where the entire run (which continues into May) sold out prior to the first performance. Happily, you can see both actors' portrayals at the Tivoli. Cumberbatch is the Creature on April 2; Miller becomes the sensitive brute on April 9. (I saw the April 9 version — Miller as the Creature, Cumberbatch as the creator — at an advance screening and thought that both actors were persuasive in their roles.)
But beyond the dual casting, there's good reason to see this Frankenstein twice: The sheer audacity of the piece is so bold, you can't absorb it all in a single viewing. This refreshing new Frankenstein is as unique as the Creature to which it gives birth.