The Play's the Thing

“I just want to see him naked.”

I almost turned around to look at the woman in the row behind me who had spoken these words to her friend, but chose not to.  I was in a movie theatre at a shopping center in Monterey.  The credits for “Frankenstein” were rolling on the screen.  Not the movie “Frankenstein,” though it was a movie we had just watched—we were in a movie theatre, after all—but footage of a live stage performance that was filmed at the National Theatre in London.

I had been unaware that “Frankenstein” was adapted for the stage.  Apparently it was a very big deal: directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours” and mastermind behind the upcoming London 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony); critical raves and a stream of sold-out performances; the two leads, Jonny Lee Miller (photo above) and Benedict Cumberbatch, switching off each night, a brilliant marketing ploy that was also a creative tour de force.  The “Frankenstein” I saw on a Wednesday at Monterey’s Century Theatres, at the Del Monte Center, featured Cumberbatch as Doctor Frankenstein and Miller as his monstrous creation.  On Thursday, the next night, the roles would be reversed.  I overheard several people say they were coming back on Thursday to see the show again with the alternate casting.  Some had even seen the original broadcast last year, and were back for this encore presentation.

Benedict Cumberbatch was the man the woman sitting behind me wanted to see naked.  Fair-haired and fine-boned, Cumberbatch gave a solid performance as the uptight Doctor, and indeed it would be interesting to see him take on such an utterly different role: the play, written by Nick Dent, opens with the creature, brutish and covered with ugly sutured scars, emerging from a transparent egg-like sac, naked except for a skimpy skin-colored loincloth, and grunting and contorting violently across the stage as the camera looms in close to reveal the pulsing skin and sweat of his freshly human anatomy.

I think we all go to the theatre to see people naked—the nakedness of their souls, their stories, which at bottom are so often similar to our own—but I’m not sure if seeing a live play that has been filmed to be shown on screen offers the same charge of connection we may feel in the darkened hall, with actors’ bodies that breathe the same air we breathe, their hearts beating in time with our own.

A week later, I attended another filmed play, this one featuring Christopher Plummer as Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”  The production, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, was sumptuous, superbly acted, with innumerable instances of creative freshness and imagination, including a hysterical Bruce Dow as Trinculo, here a fey, ravaged old queen, and a bright sky-blue Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo, at right), her costume and body make-up matching the cool tone of her voice and the gliding ease of her flight.

It was easy to be mesmerized by the production, which was filmed with multiple cameras and carefully edited, just like a movie.  Shakespeare’s language always mesmerizes, by whatever media it is conveyed.  With live theatre, of course, it is the viewer who does the editing, who turns his or her head to follow the action, take in the whole stage picture, or focus on one actor’s face or gestures.  When we watch a movie we agree to a certain passivity: other people have made these creative choices for us.

I found this “Tempest” more satisfying as entertainment than “Frankenstein,” which despite the strength of the two leads and its compelling subject suffered from a weak script and mediocre acting in the secondary roles.

When the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting its performances to movie screens around the world, some observers wondered if people would become so accustomed to seeing glamorous operas productions at the multiplex they would stop attending performances of their local opera company.  I doubt that people will stop going to see plays because there is the occasional screening of a performance from London or New York or wherever.  Regular theatregoers tend to be a passionate bunch, and seeing a movie of a big production is just more of what they already love: language and bodies and feelings and stories on stage—the thrill of performance.  Yet perhaps even they—perhaps even I—will grow used to the fancier bells and whistles of the big companies, the brighter lights of celebrity actors, and our local productions will seem just a little bit smaller, a little bit dimmer.

That would be a shame.  The most moving and memorable local theatrical experience I’ve had since moving to the Monterey Peninsula over a dozen years ago was a quietly intense production at PacRep of “The Weir," starring Julie Hughett and John Rousseau and performed in PacRep's intimate Circle Theatre.  Rousseau’s long monologue near the end of the play was a gradual unveiling of human emotion, a stripping away of painful layers so raw and naked and true that I still get chills just to recall it, years later.  Some day I may experience this kind of powerful artistry which is unique to theatre as I watch actors speak and move on a white screen in a chilly popcorn-scented auditorium, but I’m not holding my breath.  The play’s the thing.

To find out about upcoming local screenings of productions from the National Theatre and other companies, visit fathomevents.com.