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LONDON, United Kingdom — On Sunday at the Oscars, when the names of the nominees for Best Director are read out, the most on-form director in the world, Danny Boyle, will not be among them. The man who won the Academy Award two years ago for "Slumdog Millionaire" was not nominated for his film "127 Hours," even though it was nominated for Best Picture. But I don't think that will bother him all that much. Boyle will be basking in the glow of a different triumph.
The director has returned to his original home, the stage, and directed a new production of "Frankenstein." The pre-opening buzz surrounding the show reached Hollywood levels here in slightly more reticent London. The play opened last night at Britain's Royal National Theatre and trust me, the hype is for real — this "Frankenstein" is amazing.
As the audience enters the vast Olivier Theatre a large bell tolls and we do not have to ask for whom. On the ceiling, an arrowhead of several hundred lightbulbs points down to the stage. They are not lit. Yet.
The house lights go down and the arrowhead flashes blinding white, then again, and again. A stark naked, man-like creature emerges from the blinding white and the show is off to a roaring start. A train emerges out of nowhere, birds are magicked into the imagination, there is fire, there is violence, and there is full-frontal nudity — all before the production is 15 minutes old.
Boyle marries live spectacle to rapid cinematic pacing and by the time the audience has caught its breath it is experiencing, as if for the first time, the familiar story of the creature made by a mad genius who slowly, ruefully, then tragically learns how painful it is to be human.
This is not the monster movie "Frankenstein" of Boris Karloff, nor is it a spoof with Peter Boyle clomping through "Puttin' on the Ritz." As adapted by playwright Nick Dear, this is a "Frankenstein" that goes back to its roots: a story written by a teenager in rebellion against the whole known world.
In the early summer of 1816, Mary Godwin, daughter of radical intellectuals William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, was living in sin in Switzerland with the poet and professional genius Percy Bysshe Shelley. Sharing the couple's holiday home was another poetic genius, Lord Byron, as well as Clair Clairmont, one in a long list of his lovers. The weather on Lake Geneva was wet. Unable to go outside, the foursome and friends amused themselves by making up ghost stories.
Godwin wrote hers out and kept working on it. Later she married Shelley and published the book, "Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus" in 1818. From the beginning the compelling duo at the book's core, Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, appealed to dramatists. There have been many stage versions created in the almost 200 years since Mary Shelley came up with the characters. Most have been forgotten. The last major production opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed the same night.
Boyle's version returns to the debate at the core of Shelley's tale, and that debate is remarkably contemporary: What are the limits of science when it comes to creating life? Should scientific experiment take into account social mores? Does scientific knowledge close us off from the wild and romantic? Is science the way to understand God?
That sounds terribly serious, but the play works because Boyle makes the serious so damn much fun. In this he is aided by the performances of his lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. The pair alternate in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. At the performance I saw, Miller took the role of the Creature and was truly great.
The actor has been working steadily since he was a teenager without quite becoming a star. He was in Boyle's film "Trainspotting" and was also briefly Angelina Jolie's first husband. This performance will elevate him into a different category. It is thrilling and surprising to watch him play a Creature burned into life by lightning, learning to inhabit his body, with his naked, expressive buttocks shaking and flapping, then learning to think and to speak.
Cumberbatch is a different kind of actor, more traditionally English in his reliance on his voice to do most of the hard work, but for a man as arrogant as Victor Frankenstein that works.
The play is written in short sharp scenes, more cinematic than theatrical, and this helps Boyle keep up momentum.
Boyle's work in the movies is so full of youthful, even boyish, energy, it is hard to believe that he is approaching 55. But there is tremendous experience and an old conjuror's knowledge mixed in with that boyishness. Think about "127 Hours." The audience goes into the movie theater knowing exactly what the story is and how it is going to end: a guy climbing in a Utah Canyon gets his arm trapped by a boulder and after five days cuts the limb off with a cheap knife. Yet the film is a thrill ride from start to finish, and an uplifting exploration of a human being's single-minded will to live.
Similarly, the audience arrives at the theater knowing the basic story of Frankenstein, yet Boyle manages to take the viewers on a magic carpet ride, while sliding the serious stuff into your brain without hitting you over the head with it. Only someone with decades of experience can do that.
Like I said, Danny Boyle is the on-form director of the moment. But you don't have to take my word for it: Boyle is filming performances of "Frankenstein" in March that will be shown at theaters around the world.