trenchkamen: (Sherlock - by smiley)
[personal profile] trenchkamen
Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (Reverse Casting)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, Johnny Lee Miller as the Creature
Phoenix Art Museum, 13 June 2012

I had this informal bet going with myself that it would take me less than five minutes upon stepping into the museum lobby to spot somebody with something Sherlock related. It took about three. I'll let that set the tone for the evening.



I think the National Theatre Live program is brilliant, and I would love to see other theaters take up the same sort of broadcasting. Back by insanely popular demand (wow I wonder why), Frankenstein was originally shown a year ago, right after it was staged in London. I had heard nothing about it until some online friends mentioned it, and by that point the United States livecast was over. So I was pleased to hear that there was going to be another livecast this year. I wanted to see what all the hype was about.

Okay, I can understand at least 50% of the hype. Anything Benedict Cumberbatch is in will, henceforth (or at least during the height of Sherlock's popularity), be insanely popular with a certain cohort. Which seemed to be the major draw that evening, and, let's be honest, I probably would not have heard of this play if not for osmosis facilitated by my and friends' involvement in fandom. Same goes for Cabin Pressure, which is delightful, by the way, so I'm glad for that sort of exposure. And yes, I admit somewhere deep down part of my interest was based on him being in it. God damn, I'm glad he's a good actor, because so often mediocre twits get insanely popular through their sex appeal, and that irks me. He also seems, insofar as media can be trusted, like a decent human being, which has no bearing on his acting ability, but god damn am I sick of seeing people fawn over violent, ignorant assholes. Anyway. I admit I had a rather shallow reason for choosing the reverse casting showing: I have a serious mad scientist fetish, Cumberbatch is gorgeous, and the wardrobe is insanely attractive. It seemed like as good a reason as any. Yes, I know he also does a brilliant creature, and I'm debating whether I want to go back for the original casting screening.

Did I mention the wardrobe? I want Victor's entire wardrobe. It's up there with Ichabod Crane's wardrobe from the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow.

Anyway. I got to the museum early so I could look about before the show, as my ticket also covered museum admission. I had not been to Phoenix Art Museum in a while, so there had to be some new stuff. There is an exhibit of eight paintings (seemingly done with Crayola paints on cheap artists' paper) done by Pennsylvania inmates serving a life without parole sentence. I admit I found it fascinating, for all the pretentious-sounding reasons you'd expect: these inmates clearly have a unique experience, life narrative, existential crisis, psychology, what-have-you. They weren't skilled, by any means, but they certainly were illuminating. I spent a while studying them. There was this nagging dis-ease, though, that the prisoners were being objectified and their experiences being put up for consumption; regardless of whether or not they deserved their sentence (and we certainly imprison enough innocent people in this fine, fresh Land of the Free), it nettles me in much the same way paparazzi does. It seems pornographic, exploitative. I'm probably digging too far into that, for art always reflects part of the artist, and artists with unique experiences often express them to those who have never had them through their works. There's something universal about that. And the inmates did know their pieces would be displayed, so it was a forum for them to communicate with the outside world.

The museum is doing a focus on papercraft. At the entrance to that exhibit there was a whiteboard with a pad of Post-It notes and a pencil for people to "leave their comments", which resulted pretty much as expected: I found a #BelieveinSherlock post, as well as LOKI'D. So Tumblr was out in full force. I also found the usual political claptrap, like "NOBAMA 2012". Well, shit. You've convinced me. I didn't see any 4chan crap, which almost made me nostalgic for 2007. Almost.

By the way, I was wearing the full-black shirt/cargo pants/boots ensemble, and I have short brown hair. Maybe you saw me. I would also mention that I am white, but this is Phoenix, and almost everybody is white. Pale; I guess that's more limiting.

I thought it was cynical of me to assume that at least 50% of the attendees would be fanbrats (not to be confused with mature fans), or Cumberbitches, or whatever the fuck they call themselves. You know what I'm talking about. The "ALL MY FEELS/JAWN/CONSTANTLY WRITING IN ALL CAPS/LITERALLY CRYING" contingent of Tumblr. A level of obsession, detachment from reality, hero-worship, whatever, that is on a level beyond appreciation of somebody's work (and looks; nothing wrong with acknowledging that somebody revves your engine, so to speak). It's that level reached when one starts writing RPS. It seems that estimate was too conservative. The MC, introducer, whatever you call him (dude who spoke behind a podium in front of the screen before the movie), was fully aware of this, judging by the fact that 90% of his preamble consisted of stuff like "So who is a Sherlock fan?" (everybody, including myself, but I did not fucking shriek when he said that goddamn) and "What movie is Benedict Cumberbatch playing a villain in this year?" and some other blah, I think I tuned it out and was saying something cynical to Mike, and ended with something like "Okay, we're going to start Frankenstein, starring..." and the audience screamed "BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH!", and by this point I am sure I was bright red and hiding my face because the secondhand embarrassment was overwhelming. Actually, I started hiding my face with the first squeal. Guys, stop. This is the worst stereotype conformation imaginable, and you were making me glad I did not wear anything fannish, because as much as I try not to give a fuck what people think of me I do not want to be tarred with the same brush as a squeeing fanbrat.

How fucking surreal that would be. Poor guy must find this almost terrifying. I can't imagine walking into a theater packed with people who are obsessed with every minor move, photo, comment, etc, you have ever made, and who are shrieking every time your name is mentioned. Or who run fan blogs dedicated to you and obsess and speculate and call themselves "Cumberbitches", and I'm sure after that he would need a drink. I would buy him that drink. He seems cool. You can't help who infatuates you, but you can fucking control how you act about it.


Maybe I should talk about the production itself.

The actual play was prefaced with a making-of vignette, the usual stuff, where the actors and writer and director talk about what the story means to them, and how it fits into a cultural context, and how the story has been presented in pop culture up to this point, etc. I admit I found it a huge relief after the embarrassing display directly before. It actually wasn't half bad, and I wasn't rolling my eyes at everything anybody said about the play or the story or the characters, so I'd call it a success. Boyle had a point, that the most popular representations of Frankenstein (like the one that gave us the cultural image of a green-skinned monster with a flat head and a bolt through his neck) dehumanize the Creature, rendering him mute, dumb, a brute goaded entirely by base instinct. A science experiment gone wrong, anthropomorphized. And the moral of that story becomes shallow and reactionary: don't mess with nature, you'll create monsters. Hence the appropriation in our popular culture of "Frankenstein" as shorthand for science gone mad, or fiddling with aspects of nature deemed too sacred for human hands (which usually just means it's pushing frontiers people aren't comfortable with yet). I've heard "Franken-food" used as a knee-jerk term for genetically modified crops (of any variety, far be it in this post to debate the ethics of sterile seeds and the like), and it works, because it evokes a cultural monster that in the public mind resulted from scientists trying to play God. This is utterly false and shallow appropriation of that concept, but that's getting off topic.

Teresa pointed out after the show that the actual moral of Frankenstein is not "do not mess with nature", but "take responsibility for your actions", and I agree with her. If Victor, cowardly little shit that he is, had not abandoned his Creature, the Creature would not have been warped into a monster by being cast into a complex world he was utterly unready to deal with, where he was constantly abused, betrayed, and treated like a monster--which he became. This interpretation hinges on the acknowledgement of the Creature as a living, thinking, feeling being, who has a right to exist because he does. In a way, it could be an early argument for trans-humanism, acknowledging that it is sentience that makes a "person", not the human shell. But I digress.

Apparently, these themes were in the book, which I admittedly have not read. And the play itself was apparently quite faithful to the book. Which, also, is very much a product of its time, but that did not quell my feminist instincts. I enjoyed the play, but the women were all treated as objects, prizes, or motivations for the men, who are the ones who take action in the story. Refrigerator women, certainly. I know it read as tongue-in-cheek (in 2012) when Victor told Elisabeth (his fiancé) that science was beyond the grasp of women. I do not know if Shelley wrote this tongue-in-cheek either, a show of Victor's arrogance and ignorance (haven't read the book), but it was certainly a prevailing attitude of the time. Elisabeth is one of the only people who immediately acknowledges the Creature as a feeling being, and is civil to him when they meet. Well, she is the only person who can SEE the Creature who was kind, because while the blind man was a gentle mentor, he could not see how hideous the Creature looked. That would make Elisabeth and the blind man the kindest, wisest people in the story, and it's part of the subtle irony that society's treatment of the Creature turned him on them.

Elisabeth exercised all the agency available to her, and yet she was largely trapped in stasis, being acted upon. In a later age she could have greatly changed the course of the story, but in this time period she was given only a short opportunity to influence anything. Ultimately, though, she became a refrigerator woman, Victor's motivation, and even though this is a century-old novel I found it trying, because I fucking hate that trope. Well, I hate that trope when it is the ONLY role given to women in a story, where the ONLY influence they exert on the course of events is through motivating men. But I digress again. Oh, and she was raped, as if I needed to fill another piece in my "anti-feminist trope" bingo sheet. And, no, rape itself is not unethical to present in fiction, as it does happen, and can be quite traumatizing when it does, but it is portrayed solely as a crime against Victor.

So, we ask, is this really a feminist subversion Shelley put into the book? Maybe she is pointing out Elisabeth's intelligence and humanity, but the convention of the time (and the men of the time) shove her to the background, and don't much appreciate her until she's dead.

The play itself is very well constructed. The first ten minutes or so of the play (the "hatching" scene? "Birth" scene?) consists of the Creature flopping about, contorting, and groaning as he tries to figure out--well, anything, I suppose. He's a newborn. Eventually he figures out standing, by chance, but it took quite a long time to get there. I found it tedious, but put within the context of the whole play it makes sense to showcase the Creature's initial utter helplessness to showcase his growth by the end of the play. Probably would be just as effective if it was half as long. It looks--painful, I suppose, punishing, as there is a lot of thrashing and stumbling putting weight on joints in odd ways. Cumberbatch said after that play's run he had some serious joint problems; I assume Miller didn't do much better. Playing the Creature seems physically and mentally exhausting. Every second you're on stage you're having to think about every physical tick, because you're moving in a way utterly alien to you. At least with the other characters you can move as you usually do. You're also in heavy makeup and prosthesises under hot stage lights, thrashing about and generally working up a sweat. There certainly is a dedication to art, here, to keep playing this role (and so fully) night after night. I respect that greatly. Really, this production showcased the Creature, and it's about time he got a little characterization and play, for the reasons elaborated above.

Overall, despite my picking at certain issues, I enjoyed the production. I'm glad the National Theatre decided to start livecasting their productions, as it means us colonials can enjoy some of these limited-run plays as well. I'm looking forward to seeing more, but I get the feeling in LA tickets will be more expensive and in shorter supply.

July 2012

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