* I tend to think that any detailed discussion of this play could be considered to contain spoilers, therefore I advise visitors to consider this before reading on.

‘There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it.’ – Tom Stoppard

If somebody had paused Friday night’s performance of Declan Greene’s Pompeii, L.A. half way through and asked for my opinion so far, I would have had difficulty responding. I’m sure I would have stammered out some garbled combination of ‘it’s really interesting / I have no idea what’s happening / I just don’t know‘ before collapsing into a nervous heap. Hyperbole aside, I would certainly have been flummoxed by the question. This is a play that sends out so many tendrils in its early stages that the audience’s predominate state is one of disorientation. When the loose ends finally snap off and the personal tale at the heart of the performance is laid (rather literally) bare, the entire play is instantly reconfigured in our memories. In that moment, we get it.

This journey from narrative discord to harmony is both beguiling and beautifully nuanced. Its broad pop-cultural palette includes the exploitation of child stars, the global financial crisis, climate change, social disharmony and, at its core, the rich metaphorical link between the two titular cities – as Greene and director Matthew Lutton describe in the program notes, the notion that Western civilisation is ‘growing too large to support its own weight’. The grim warnings of Greg Stone’s eerie chat show host encapsulate the play’s inherent fear: the notion that ‘everything gets too big. Then it ends.’

Heat, expansion, disaster. The Icarus myth. Greene has built a sobering and deeply fascinating story from this collage of scientific and social issues. His prose shifts from poetic to savage in an instant; a talent he showcased with devastating power in the award-winning Moth. He’s frighteningly good, and, in my opinion, the most interesting facet of his writing is his ability to translate an episodically simple story into a highly complex work. Using temporal displacement to disrupt the reception of the play, Greene drives its key concerns forcefully home.

Image

Greg Stone in Pompeii, L.A. Photo by Pia Johnson

The most unexpected and impressive feature of Pompeii, L.A. is the question of whose reality we are observing. The answer is not revealed until a good two-thirds of the action has played out, and the uncertainty is preserved through gender transitions and by playing upon audience expectations and psychology. Preoccupied with the action, and the process of unravelling the temporal mysteries of the play, it is easy to overlook David Harrison’s bewildered script prompter and the layered characterisation that places him at the epicentre of the piece. The act of reconceptualising him as central to the action is what initiates the process of synthesis – or, as Ricoeur would describe it, the configurational dimension; the building of significant wholes from scattered temporal events.

Yet, Pompeii, L.A. is more sophisticated than a good story told backwards. The inability for much of the piece to identify any character as the nexus of events makes the configurational process so much more engrossing than simply ironing out the play’s disrupted temporality. Greene and Lutton’s pacing is so clever; information is revealed at such perfect intervals. The precision of the thing is truly remarkable. The play’s very first transition enables us to see that we have been thrust into an uncertain, non-linear space. The presence of Judy Garland and the sudden intrusion of medical language and processes into the scene suggest that we are peering into a single, traumatised psyche. The proposition of actors playing actors is always going to be replete with interpretive fodder, but in Greene’s case, this move is no mere gimmick. It is supported right across the diverse subject matter and, above all, by the courageous decision to preserve the transparency of the artifice. Characters change costume in plain sight, sets are built slowly and deliberately before the audience. A dead man stands, disentangles himself from his hospital tubes, and walks away. We sit dumbly, watching somebody else’s dream happen in front of us. It’s startling, often confusing, and powerfully unsettling.

Luke Ryan, Anna Samson and David Harrison. Photo by Pia Johnson

It is not just the order of events but their duration that is notable. Just as running in dreams is near impossible, the audience is frequently faced with discomfortingly expanded events with no option to focus our attention elsewhere. The car crash therefore becomes both event and metaphor. When the vehicle finally makes an appearance, we are taken through an elongated aftermath of collision – the taking of photographs, removal of personal items, the sweeping away of broken glass. The actors are also the technicians, picking through the wreckage of their world like coroners performing their own autopsies. Heat and expansion. Entropy. They cannot undo what is happening because it has already happened. Just as it was with Moth, this is the tragedy of Pompeii, L.A.

Powerlessness is a strong theme in this work. Any text that separates the linear order of events from the pattern of their reveal casts new light on the causal relationships operating within it. The characters in Pompeii, L.A. have found themselves without options; whether due to their own actions or those of others. Lurking beneath the question of ‘whose reality?’ is the question of when it became reality. Stoppard’s Guildenstern believed in a moment separating possibility from actuality: a space within which the causal chain could be broken. Pompeii, L.A. paints that moment as ungraspable. Future disasters have already been set in motion, even if we cannot yet conceive of them. Everything starts small and gets big. Then it ends.

Up until now, I’ve resisted the temptation to discuss CBS’s Elementary in the interests of giving it time to set down roots and establish itself. I’m still not entirely convinced that three episodes is enough to extrapolate valid impressions of the series as a whole but I feel the need to start considering if/how this latest addition to the category of New Sherlocks may contribute to my research.

At this point, I’m not convinced that it can. I’m at a loss to find any salient examples of exciting new readings within the text, save for one potentially significant reconfiguration. London, in this rendering, is a kind of spectral city – not located within the narrative but hovering above it, haunting its central character. For Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes, the city is deeply bound to a past he refuses to discuss. His drug use, too, seems centred around place as much as (if not moreso than) mood. The issues that preceded it arose in London; at a distance, they no longer hold sway. London is the source and feeding ground of Holmes’s inspiration, but also his demons and I can’t help but hope that this complex reading of the city and the way it looms over Miller’s Holmes will amount to something narratologically rich in the episodes to come.

The show’s most frequently discussed break from tradition – the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson – has not yet justified itself, but nor do I believe has it compromised the crucial dynamic between the two characters. The relationship is still in its early days, and what we are seeing is the usual butting of heads as they size one another up and get used to each other’s (admittedly, mostly Holmes’s) different or unorthodox ways of living. This is a very understated Watson (a harsher judge may say ineffectual, but I admit to finding the approach endearing at this early stage), neither sycophantic nor sarcastic, but watchful; learning about Holmes and his methods with equal parts fascination and frustration. Watson’s attitude to Holmes swings between one of empathy for – so she perceives – a vulnerable man experiencing hardship, and exasperation at his petulance and unwillingness to help himself. The sober companion relationship set up by Elementary lends itself to some interesting new sources of conflict between the two. Liu’s Watson – class Valedictorian and compulsive overachiever until a mistake during surgery led to the death of her patient – retains many of the neuroses that typically accompany those at the top of their profession. Her preoccupation with Holmes’ physical and mental health – pestering him to eat and exercise, and the constant, though gentle, probing about his past – hints at her own latent issues, and this in itself is an interesting development. The canonical Watson comes through the events of the stories relatively unscathed. He embodies, to borrow Holmes’s words, a ‘fixed point’; a steady presence to balance the wild mood swings and eccentricities of his friend. I believe a Watson with issues of his (or her) own is a fascinating prospect and, if done well, has the potential to add considerable depth and value to this interpretation.

These few points of interest, however, hold the only true value with which I am prepared to credit this series so far. The central function of any Sherlock Holmes story is to introduce a gripping mystery and carry this through to an impressive, but inherently logical, resolution. And on this crucial note, Elementary fails badly. The scenarios presented in the first three episodes each involve murders; and fairly generic ones at that. The middle class wife, the previously undiscovered heirs to large fortunes, the serial child-killer… these are all run-of-the-mill genre types. My personal favourite Holmes stories are the ones involving far smaller crimes -or in some cases, no crime at all – allowing for the intricacies of Holmes’s deductive processes to fully occupy the reader’s attention. Worst of all, the ‘twists’ introduced by each episode of Elementary can be sighted a mile off. To paraphrase one Twitter commentator, the audience should not be able to solve the mystery before Holmes does. He may keep his deductions and suspicions to himself, saving up his knowledge for the Big Reveal, but he is rarely far from the truth. If Holmes is not ten steps ahead of Watson and everybody else, then what is the point of him?

The procedural structure of Elementary may ensure its commercial success, but it will not aid its chances of becoming a valuable feature of of the modern Holmesian landscape. As a direct response to the BBC’s Sherlock, it is difficult not to place the two programs side by side and, sadly, Elementary does not come out of the comparison well. The rich, fannish intertextuality of the Moffat/Gatiss production is entirely absent here, replaced by the kind of formulaic, colour-by-numbers forensic drama that seems to flourish so well in the television habitat. In fact, I think it is fair to argue that House constitutes a far more successful example of the genre by embodying all the key appeals of a modern day Holmesian text, while forging its own identity as a medical drama. By distancing itself from its canonical roots, and being content to remain on the fringes of the paratextual canon, House is an ideal model of a Sherlock Holmes text that offers a fresh perspective on the books. It can borrow the elements of the Holmes stories while remaining unbeholden to the expectations laid on an adaptation of a classic text. Perhaps this contrast is a bit harsh, but I feel that the propensity of the Sherlock Holmes stories to provoke enchantment through science and reason cannot be emphasised enough as a key component of their popularity. Elementary may have the science, but it lacks the magic.

Sidenote: Big thanks to Alexander Sedov for translating my piece on the wonderful Russian Sherlock Holmes series featuring Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin. Alexander’s blog is a wealth of information on these films and compiles writings from Russia and around the world.

King Lear is perhaps Shakespeare’s most thorough tragedy. Even Hamlet – by all accounts, a more sizeable bloodbath – ends with Fortinbras walking in at just the right moment, taking the throne with the stilted ceremony of a man who cannot quite believe his good fortune. Lear has no such victor. Though at the play’s conclusion Albany suggests that Kent and Edgar should now jointly rule England, the former outright refuses the dubious honour while the latter does not even offer a response. None of the remaining characters seem to have any interest in personal power or, at the very least, they are all too damaged and disgusted by recent events to even consider their options. After all, each of them has lost the person to whom they were most devoted. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. After all, as Tom Stoppard so succinctly put it, that is what tragedy means.

In Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent rendering, the frustrations of the surviving characters are transposed onto the audience. At its close, there is a palpable sense of, what just happened? And what was the point of it all? An awkward interplay of the crucial and the unnecessary pervades this piece and even the passion and poise of Robyn Nevin cannot excuse the ideological confusion that threatens to choke the play at every point. The first question that must be asked is why Nevin’s Lear had to be a woman. The great Shakespearean roles have been played by female actors for over a century – no eyelids would have batted had the gender pronouns remained unchanged. The arguments behind making such an alteration must be compelling, otherwise the changes appear as no more than gimmicks; misguided attempts to distinguish a production of an iconic play without the requisite depth to justify the action.

Rachel McDonald’s reading of Lear falls bodily into this trap. This is not to say, however, that it fails on all levels. One compelling aspect of the titular character’s gender switch is the effect of the mirrored transformation of the Fool and the doubling of Alexandra Schepisi who takes on this role and that of Cordelia. In fairness, this dual casting could just as easily occur with a male Lear at the helm, however the fluidity of the Fool as Lear’s conscience – the role is pared and shaped so as to clearly promote this reading – while bearing the image of the loyal daughter rejected for her honesty, is occasionally quite moving. Lear never makes eye contact with the Fool, turning her back on the spectre that represents her conscience, her daughter and her own looming madness. Through this action we are able to observe her awareness of both what she has done and what is to come. This serves to make her outbursts of anger, petulance and vulnerability more poignant.

Despite the many questions around the necessity of Lear’s new identity as queen, it must be said that Nevin handles the role with a fiery grace. Diminutive alongside the rest of the cast, she cuts a complex figure. She is intimidating but unthreatening, her constrained fury resembling that of a caged animal. Her benignancy is painful to watch as she paces between characters, spitting empty threats: ‘I will do such things… what they are, yet I know not… but they shall be the terrors of the earth…’ It is difficult not to feel moved by this blend of venom and helplessness.

It is worth noting that, despite the reconfigured role of the Fool as a feature of Lear’s slowly diminishing wits, the line, ‘and my poor Fool is hang’d,’ is kept. Lear speaks this over the body of Cordelia, which offers both a coded acknowledgement of the doubling of the two parts and a recognition of Cordelia’s honesty as her downfall. She is the ‘poor fool’ of the piece: if she had only played the game as her sisters had, she (and many others, by virtue of her goodness) may have lived.

One effect that the gender manipulation of the role of Lear has on the play is the way in which the monarch’s rejection of Cordelia can be metaphorically understood. In traditional readings, it is easier to interpret this act as a final, misguided grasp for control by a king whose sensibilities and capacity to reign are slowly slipping away from him. However, in Queen Lear I was struck by the image of a mother bird, sensing an insurmountable danger or weakness in her offspring, throwing the chick from the nest. Somehow I prefer this reading. A maternal instinct that her child could not survive in this poisoned and poisoning state is stronger, more complex and somehow easier to assimilate than a mother who dismisses her child out of arrogance and folly. Then again, maybe I am trying too hard to locate McDonald’s intentions in creating this work. Even if this interpretation was intended, it offers merely an image and, as such, becomes just one more attempt to distinguish the play from tradition – interesting on the surface, but unable to stand up to more rigorous interrogation.

That said, I’m inclined to approach this work with some degree of forgiveness. In the theatre I found it almost aggravatingly vague and inconsistent. The distinct difference in mood between the first and second halves was particularly jarring, leading one patron unfamiliar with the play to ask at interval, ‘Is this a comedy?’ But on reflection my attitudes are a little kinder, or perhaps just more resigned. I have only seen Lear performed twice and on both occasions I have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of emotional gravity. In a play where nothing and nobody is rewarded, perhaps this is fitting. In any case, I hope to one day be shaken to the core by this play. And with two sub-par versions under my belt, I trust that the delight of experiencing a well-executed production will be all the more potent.

I’m currently in the process of investigating possible avenues of research for my Honours thesis and, while the whole thing is more than a little dizzying, there are several threads that I continually find myself tugging at. I know which theorists I want to weave into the conversation. I know that I want to find a way of combining theory with a cross-media conversation. I want to be able to directly engage with one of more texts or topics that I am passionate about.

In thinking about potential texts to work with, the two I instantly arrived at were Hamlet and the Sherlock Holmes canon. A quick scan of this blog will reveal a fairly keen enthusiasm for these texts and the manifold ways they have been interpreted, adapted and mythologised since their emergence. They have both taken on cultural significance that has travelled beyond the country of their origin, and have considerable mythology and iconography associated with them. Not only are they two of my favourite texts of all time, but their eponymous protagonists are two of my favourite characters. I do not believe that the first phenomenon is necessarily related to the second. As a general rule my dearest novels, films and plays feature conflicted but relatively unlikeable characters placed in challenging circumstances. I’m far more attracted to complexity than amiability and these two characters – arguably both unpredictable and unstable – desperately appeal to me. I love them and I will go well out of my way to defend them, in spite of their many faults.

David Tennant in Hamlet – Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008 (Credit: Alastair Muir)

Exploring how I may be able to employ these texts in a workable manner, I realise just how many similarities exist between them – largely between the central characters, but also concerning some features of their respective tales. In terms of Sherlock Holmes and Hamlet themselves, both combine striking intellectual capacity with moments of incredible vulnerability, not to mention strong bipolar symptomatology. Both possess a strong love of (and talent for) theatre, artifice and play. Both exhibit complex attitudes towards women, and are deeply suspicious of them. Both are well-versed in the social behaviours and expectations of their time, but are often critical and dismissive of these practices. Both understand the systems of communication that operate around them and are able to manipulate these systems for their own ends. Both work to their own individual systems of justice and do so with conviction and an easy conscience. And, importantly, both possess a single, staunch friend whose role involves not only protecting them and their honour, but also sharing their story with the world and, arguably, acting as their key character witness for the juridical audience.

In the broader narrative sense, we also see some interesting parallels. Systems of information and disinformation are central to the stories and the two characters exhibit considerable dexterity in negotiating their individual objectives. Hamlet approaches the task of avenging his father by laying a number of traps and false trails, employing his penchant for drama through his ‘antic disposition’ and his adapted version of The Murder of Gonzago, rechristened The Mousetrap. He is several steps ahead of every other character in the piece and, while his skills lean towards the linguistic rather than the scientific, he manages to deceive everyone around him while escaping detection (of course, this is just one of infinite interpretations of the text – you could feasibly argue that Hamlet is at the mercy of fate from the very beginning). As for Holmes, one word frequently applied to him is masterful. He, too, outpaces everybody around him, reducing the efforts of other characters to keep up with him to mere comedy. Like Hamlet, he spreads disinformation about himself, his plans and his capabilities and uses the available communication channels of the day to confuse and mislead his opponents. His intimate knowledge of the London media enables him to target his messages with great specificity and he regularly interprets the value of information based on its source rather than its content.

Modern interpretations of each text tend to place great emphasis on the communications networks within them. I refer to BBC’s Sherlock, with its proliferation of digital media and multimodal approaches to storytelling, and two recent productions of Hamlet – the RSC’s 2008 version featuring David Tennant and the National Theatre’s slightly more recent rendering with Rory Kinnear – both of which used CCTV and surveillance to highlight the tangled webs of espionage within the play; the watchers and the watched. Michael Almereyda’s interesting and frustrating film version of Hamlet (2000) was perhaps one of the forerunners of this approach. Saturated in media, the film plunges its characters into a dizzyingly hyperreal New York. Hamlet is a filmmaker, Ophelia a photographer and Claudius the director of a huge multinational company – the Denmark Corporation. BBC’s Sherlock, too, showcases and fetishises the signature features of modern London while still containing nods to their 19th century equivalents referenced by Doyle in the original stories.

BBC’s Sherlock

Language of the theatre features heavily across both texts. The game and the play form central motifs that Holmes and Hamlet build their respective stories around. We watch as they each oscillate between entertainer and schemer, drawing certain characters into their theatrics while keeping others at a distance. Holmes’ penchant for the last-minute reveal contrasts slightly with Hamlet’s more disordered approach. The detective plays a chess-like game; setting up the board, arranging the pieces and locking in his opponent before either they or the official forces piece together his plan. Hamlet’s method is more parry-and-feint; his plans are changeable. He has an idea, changes his mind, and then immediately has another wave of inspiration. Holmes enjoys the strategy and the long trajectory where Hamlet uses artifice to verify his suspicions and to put those around him to a test of loyalty and intellect.

Both are closely attuned to minutiae but Hamlet’s talent involves locating human errors, weaknesses, and subtle linguistic clues. An expression, a loaded word – he seizes a signifier and deconstructs it on the spot. Holmes’ approach is grounded in the physical and pragmatic. He is practical where Hamlet is spiritual. This marks the key point of divergence between the texts. There are no ghosts in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Any suggestion of the supernatural is eventually proven to have a material cause. Hamlet focuses on the symbolic significance of events where Holmes has trained himself to position every potential clue along a continuum of cause and effect. Nothing outside of this system holds any value to him. Hamlet is prepared to cast his fate into the hands of the gods where Holmes, whose attitudes toward religion are ambiguous at best, is supremely confident in his ability to uncover the mystery and direct a situation to the point of resolution.

These parallels are highly interesting and perhaps go some way toward explaining why these two texts have captured my imagination so strongly. How they may contribute to my research I am not yet sure. Writing on both is impossible as there is no way I could go into the requisite depth with only 15,000 words. At this point, I think the Sherlock Holmes stories offer more potential for discussion where tying the thesis back to media and critical theory is concerned. The networks of communication within the stories are highly interesting, as are the connections to the work of Baudrillard (seduction, aesthetic play, hyperreality) within both the original texts and the BBC adaptation. A few more conversations need to be had with the academic powers-that-be, but I’m excited about the many directions in which these two texts can be taken. Hopefully I can create something interesting and worthwhile from them.

I’m going to make a confession which may be controversial: I don’t like Jeremy Brett.

Coming from a professed admirer of Sherlock Holmes, this admission is likely to prompt some folks to round up the neighbours, light the torches and unleash the dogs. But, sadly, it’s true. I’ve tried to like him, I really have, and I can see why people hold up his Holmes as the definitive portrayal. He’s an impressive and nuanced actor, remarkably authentic in his characterisation. But I don’t like him. I feel no connection to him, either as a viewer or a lover of the stories. And this is a problem.

Why do I need to like Holmes? Take him however you will, he isn’t the easiest character to identify with. There are only so many excuses one can make for him. He can be moody, blunt and, occasionally, downright rude. His strange personal habits, irregular hours and general untidiness make him an almost insufferable housemate, while his love for drama and secrecy often results in injury to those around him. Yet he does has his redeeming features. For all his bohemianism, he still understands social graces and can exhibit these when necessary. He dislikes and distrusts women but is still capable of charm and chivalry toward them. His humour oscillates between wry and ridiculous and his respect and love for Watson, though rarely openly acknowledged, is easily traced despite his occasionally outrageous treatment of his friend.

Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes

The fact is that, however taciturn Holmes may be, he engenders trust among his clients. Vulnerable people put their faith in him and though he may inject a few snide comments at their expense, there is no doubt that he appreciates this trust and treats it with considerable respect. I have little trust in Brett; he embodies too much of Holmes’ cold rationality and not enough of his humour, passion and animation*.

Enter Vasily Livanov. With his calm and measured delivery (no doubt due at least in part to the Russian censors’ refusal to allow any references to drugs), easy sense of humour and trademark raspy voice, Livanov offered a new reading of Holmes and one which instantly appealed to me. He inspires absolute trust while still embodying all the energy, humour, sharpness and temerity of his character. The appeal of his characterisation is largely in its balance; many renderings of Holmes have selected to amplify certain elements of his complex character while overlooking others. Aside from the aforementioned avoidance of any mention of cocaine and other illicit substances, Livanov’s portrayal is inclusive of most facets of Holmes’ character. As such, it positions him as a great deal more accessible than any other representation I have come across.

Vitaly Solomin and Vasily Livanov

Another factor that makes this series of Soviet films, produced between the late 70’s and mid-80’s, so engaging is the clarity and depth of the friendship between Holmes and Watson. Vitaly Solomin’s good doctor is afforded a rare parity with Holmes. He is neither foil nor fool, and while his misconceptions and erroneous deductions provide some comic relief, he is treated with considerable respect by Livanov’s Holmes, whose feelings toward his friend are made clear by his expression if not through his words. Importantly, the popular image of Holmes playing upon Watson’s vulnerabilities and deductive shortcomings in order to massage his own ego is rarely seen. He expresses hesitation before unravelling the sad history of the pocketwatch belonging to Watson’s brother and his approach to introducing his friend to the finer points of his art takes the form of training rather than blatant showing off. His encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls is bookended by the only two moments of emotional weakness Holmes demonstrates across the five films: his plaintive expression as the letter arrives to summon Watson away from the scene, and his brief show of tears when the pair are reunited after his apparent death.

Solomin is marvellous as Watson. Again, we see almost all possible readings of the character expressed in his portrayal. We see the stoic but suspicious military man who misinterprets Holmes’ eccentricities as evidence of criminal behaviour. We see the romantic; drawn to the mystery and danger of his friend’s singular vocation and deeply impressed by the inner workings and processes of his mind. We see the shifting moral compass; dedicated to upholding justice while learning to appreciate Holmes’ flexible attitude to the subject. And, most importantly, we see the quiet, staunch friend, the guardian and protector of both Holmes himself and his public reputation.

There are certainly moments of silliness within these adaptations. Both Lestrade and Henry Baskerville are reduced to targets of ridicule and disdain, however the occasional moments of slapstick humour, while unimaginative, are not offensive. What ultimately resonates about these films is a sense of warmth; for the two central characters and the relationship between them. You could launch an argument that this resolution is either authentic or inauthentic depending on your reading of the texts – both contentions could be adequately justified – but I would maintain that it is what lifts them above the multitude of Holmesian representations out there. They explore the many facets of Holmes and Watson without reducing them to singularities or caricatures of selected traits. The films are humane, intelligent and humorous and strike an admirable balance between studied reverence and entertainment. And much of this is down to the poise and delicacy of Livanov and Solomin’s performances.

* It’s probably worth noting a certain similarity to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. While I admire and enjoy his approach, he often reverts to base rudeness, demonstrating the kind of petulance you would expect of a spoilt child. In the stories, Holmes’ loathing of society was tempered by an understanding that you often catch more flies with honey. He knew when to observe the social protocols and how doing so was likely to help his cause. Cumberbatch’s Holmes, to borrow another cliche, stomps over people and their feelings with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop. 

I remember reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a very different manner to the way I usually approach new texts. I found myself instantly compartmentalising it, largely due to the fact that I found the Creature and his development to be thoroughly fascinating, moving and terrifying. This was the narrative thread that I naturally wanted to follow. As for Victor Frankenstein, I found his combination of neurosis, arrogance and his inability to connect with anything or anyone on an emotional level to be frustrating. I found him difficult to like, and my sympathies went with the much-maligned Creature far more readily than his maddening creator.

I can’t help thinking that Nick Dear feels similarly to me on this issue. His script for the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein – performed back in January of last year, but still screening in cinemas around the world as part of the NT Live program – dramatically sidelines Victor, leaving him essentially a bit-player in his eponymous story. Dear and director Danny Boyle are clearly far more interested in the development of the Creature than addressing in depth the big questions of responsibility and morality and, despite their inspired decision to alternate casting (with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch swapping the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature every night), ostensibly to highlight the role of each character in ‘creating’ the other, they seem far more focused on Frankenstein’s responsibility to his Creature and the impact of his abandonment, rather than holding the Creature accountable for his actions.


Dear and Boyle’s delineation of Shelley’s text is immediately clear: the performance opens with a giant womb-like construction, pulsing in time to an industrial beat. A man-shaped shadow becomes visible and Cumberbatch’s Creature tears himself loose from the structure, falling to the ground. What follows is captivating. The newborn Creature, though fully-formed, struggles for many minutes; assessing his own physicality, slowly testing his limbs and learning what they are capable of. After many attempts to stand, he finally manages to remain upright and makes a couple of unsteady rounds of the stage before collapsing in exhaustion.

This sets the scene for the first half of the performance. We witness the Creature’s terror at meeting with modern technology, his bewilderment at being faced with human cruelty for the first time, his shock and joy at discovering the feeling of rain, rolling in grass and catching snowflakes on his tongue. We see him befriended by the blind man in the woods and taught by him how to read, providing some of the play’s most delightful comic moments as the Creature becomes more engrossed by the falling snow than his lesson, responding like a shamed schoolboy when chastised by his elderly teacher. His rapidfire recitation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with a delivery not unlike the monologue of Beckett’s Lucky, is a further source of entertainment, despite the darker significance that particular text will later come to have on the tale.

I found Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Creature – especially in the first half of the performance – to be both beautifully wrought and completely absorbing, and the discordance of his increasingly agile mind with his unwieldy physicality to be quite moving. He is, at times, Gollum-like in his shambling enthusiasm and one great delight of seeing this performance as part of NT Live rather than in the theatre comes with the close-up camera work than enables you to observe the intricacies of his expression. His awkwardness is initially endearing rather than threatening, and offers some insight into the priorities of his creator. It seems appropriate to me that Frankenstein would have given little thought to the physical capabilities of his creation, instead choosing to ensure that his brain was given the best chance to thrive at the expense of his cobbled-together body. This interpretation, to me, makes the Creature’s struggle to physically express his clearly eloquent thoughts all the more poignant. It also functions as yet another accusation against Frankenstein; another way in which the Creature has been let down by his absent creator.

For all my willingness to make concessions for a version of Frankenstein that elects to closely follow the Creature’s progression, I feel that this approach limits the audience’s ability to make fair appraisals of the characters. Dear and Boyle comment in the short video introduction to the performance that they wanted to ‘give the Creature back his voice’, as many historical and contemporary versions of the story have robbed him of the opportunity to express his reality. However, in doing so they have stepped significantly in the other direction, disenfranchising Victor and editing out his journey from the tale. This has a number of repercussions. His relationship with Elizabeth, already an object of mystery for readers of the text, becomes enigmatic to the point of apathy. In the text we witness Victor’s progression from brilliant, egotistical scientist to broken man, pursued and pursuing, incapable of finding peace from what he has created and enabled. In this production, we see very little of this. Instead we see only an antisocial, neurotic man – brilliant perhaps, but arrogant almost beyond the deserving of sympathy. For an audience, this is disappointing – from a narrative perspective certainly, but also as Jonny Lee Miller is a very capable actor and it is a shame not to see his talents better utilised.


I was also deeply unsettled by Boyle’s decision to have the Creature rape Elizabeth before killing her. With every other act of violence perpetrated by the Creature the intention is singular and clear – he means to punish Victor. Adding rape to the equation changes the balance and, for me, it was the moment where my sympathies towards the Creature evaporated. This meant that the final scene between the Creature and Victor was considerably compromised – what should have been a strong, resonant image of the bound-up, symmetrical natures of these two characters instead brought with it a mess of mixed symbolism and unbalanced power relations. The resulting ambiguities leave this final confrontation unable to shoulder the dramatic and symbolic weight it should have carried.

For all my many issues with this production, there are a number of scenes that I found very effective (and affecting), and that have stuck with me. From a purely aesthetic point of view, I count that as a success. Viscerally, the show was excellent. Underworld’s score, the set design and the transitions were all beautifully executed. But from moral, emotional and narrative points of view, I’m not convinced that Dear and Boyle managed to adequately achieve their grand aim of presenting two beings, both creators and created, bound to one another and locked in eternal pursuit. The balance was always going to be difficult to strike and, sadly, despite brilliant potential and some wonderful moments, I do not feel that they quite managed it.

Homework and other vague life disturbances have kept me at a distance from this blog of late. However, I’ve not been entirely idle. A couple of starkly different and differently engaging works at the Malthouse have kept my brain in gear, though I’m not quite certain where to begin in attempting to discuss them.

The Histrionic (Malthouse) – April 2 to May 3, 2012

Daniel Schlusser’s rendering of Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic (or, Der Theatermacher, if you will) is perhaps the easiest to begin with in terms of basic assessment of quality. In short, it’s great. Having had the privilege of witnessing Conor Lovett perform Beckett for three hours with naught but a bare spotlight for company, I know full-well how gripping a lengthy monologue can be in the hands of a master. Bille Brown delivered a remarkable performance to a rapt but disappointingly small crowd (I really hope audience numbers picked up as the season rolled on, because the opportunity to see two superb actors performing a play rarely seen on these shores deserves wider attention), managing to toe the line between humour and pathos with impressive precision. Being entirely unfamiliar with Bernhard’s work, I was enthralled by the way in which Brown slowly and surgically drew out Bruscon’s character; it was not until a scene of pathetic and egomaniacal cruelty towards his daughter that I could begin to form any kind of opinion as to whether the man should be more pitied, ridiculed or despised. And even still, it remains difficult to speak of Bruscon in absolutes. HIs varying descriptions of his play, The Wheel of History, contain a neat nod to Hamlet‘s Polonius, and Bruscon is definitely the epitome of tragical-comical-historical.

Barry Otto, too, deserves praise for his intricate delivery of an essentially physical role. He has very little dialogue and yet manages to imbue his innkeeper with bewilderment, frailty and the air of a man so used to serving others that he no longer pauses to consider the justice in what is demanded of him. He is beautiful to watch and the effect of pitting the smaller-statured Otto against the larger, grander, alternatively cajoling and bullying figure of Brown is both visually powerful and strangely moving.

I feel I have to mention the bizarre and wonderful set design, giant and inexplicable (polystyrene?) props and the general chaos that occurs throughout the play (sawdust strewn everywhere, glasses thrown at walls, curtains torn from their hooks, water dripping – and eventually pouring – from the ceiling). I pity those responsible for the cleanup when The Histrionic touring circus shuffles off, wheezing and bickering, to its next rural location.

I’ve seen this performance touted as a masterclass in acting and it is certainly a lesson in both how to command an audience through dialogue, and engage them through physical presence alone. High quality stuff.

The Plague Dances (Four Larks/Malthouse) – April 14 to May 6

Now this is where things get more complicated. I’ve been thinking and thinking about this performance since I left the theatre, and for so many reasons. It has sparked some serious internal debate and I’m still not convinced I have arrived at any answers.

For one thing, there are so many elements to consider when thinking about The Plague Dances. Four Larks create such multi-textual work, combining dance, theatre and music to create a thoroughly immersive experience. The Malty’s Tower Theatre really was a thing to behold – bunches of twigs hanging from the ceiling, tan bark strewn about the corridor. Hessian cushions, the smell of fresh earth and wheat all add to the effect. It really is an absorbing space and I spent several minutes before the house lights went down just staring around in wonder.

So, we have atmosphere. Check. The music, too, is gorgeous – lovely and plaintive in the background of scenes, even more wondrous when it swells to full volume, demanding total attention. The dancing, while not technically brilliant, contributes to the evocative nature of the piece (the scene pictured above, with those spectacular masks featured in the promo images, sees both elements combine to stunning effect). I loved the austerity of the costumes and the roughly hewn furniture. The acting was sound, occasionally excellent (Emily Tomlins and Matt Crosby deserving particular mention). The real non-entity of the piece is the script. It’s not that the writing is bad, just unmemorable. Inelegant, perhaps. It isn’t strong enough to earn its place and, so, wilts beside more immediate and arresting narrative devices. The slow meting out of the story through sermons and brief dramatic interludes feels like an unnecessary distraction from the far more interesting and less-linear tale being told through music and movement.

The Plague Dances is both absorbing and inconsistent but, in saying that, I enjoyed its inconsistencies. What it loses in cohesion it makes up in aesthetics; without doubt a striking experience and an utterly captivating one.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers