Perceptions of the “Freak”

Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature.

Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature in the National Theatre’s Frankenstein.

Christine Bruno drops in to sees Nick Dear’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre… and ruminates on perceptions of the ‘freak’.

It’s the first rainy day since I’ve been in London, just about three weeks now, and even though it’s Thursday, I can’t get that old Carpenters tune out of my head. It’s been a curious one, this second time round revisiting Raspberry in a new city, a new venue and with new eyes.

Reconnecting with the Raspberry family after months of being away has, curiously enough, been much like reuniting with close blood relatives you haven’t seen for a while. Almost immediately, you fall back into the natural state of things and it feels like no time has passed and yet, somehow, you’re keenly aware that it has, offstage – and on.

Time away from anything causes reflection, whether you want it to or not. And nothing brings that more into focus than when you have the good fortune to revisit a role. Because everything you built the first time round still exists in your DNA somewhere and reemerges as soon as you scratch the surface, you have the luxury to allow the deeper layers to come forward and show you things about the character and the play that were probably always there but the path wasn’t clear enough before for you to see them. And yes, before I bore everyone to tears with my introspective melancholy, there is a method to my madness…

‘Make me a freak like me so that I will have someone who will love me.’ Okay, I’m paraphrasing here so please don’t run to Nick Dear and tell him I’ve misquoted him. On Monday night, I was lucky enough to score a return ticket – one of the few perks of being a lonely visitor in a metropolitan city – to a preview performance of Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, London.

The show stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller; alternating roles each night as The Creature and Dr. Frankenstein. I know that most of you will not have seen the show as I write this, so fear not, this isn’t a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say, as Cumberbatch’s ‘Creature’ is nothing short of brilliant –  filled to the top of his scarred, bald head with wonder, passion, rage, curiosity, acceptance, confusion, longing; I could go on and on – sometimes all at once. Cumberbatch’s beautifully crafted and intelligent performance made me fall in love with The Creature from the first moments of the play – as he explored himself, completely naked, and his surroundings for the first 20 minutes of the play – physically and vocally, with an intensity and specificity I’ve never seen on stage or in film.

As I sat mesmerized by this amazing, chiseled figure of a man, I wondered why I felt so connected to him. And as I saw him walking round the stage – legs straight, gait widened, crashing to the ground and rising up again, bum first in the air and inching his way back up, it hit me: I was watching ME! This Creature, presumably teaching himself how to move through the universe for the first time, was walking like me!

My second thought was, “Wow! Impressive. He must have studied people with CP.” My third (the three coming in rapid succession) – and the one that has stayed with me and is in part, the reason for this blog, was “That’s what the audience sees when they see Raspberry!” It seems rudimentary, I know, and obviously, I have always been aware of it in the larger sense, but hadn’t given it all that much thought in relation to me or to Rita.

With such an earth-shattering beginning, I had high hopes for the rest of the evening. Sadly, and again, without giving too much away, the script betrayed Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance and more importantly, my initial feeling of identification gave way to disappointment. Once again, the audience was forced to listen to the same tired narrative about the ‘freak’ being too hideous for anyone to love – save for a female creature made just for him, who is just as hideous as he. And, “Why, oh, why can’t anyone see past my hideous deformity?” (which, incidentally, was not at all convincingly hideous, but strangely sexy, in fact.) Big surprise there, eh? And that’s not even the thing that is likely to cause the biggest groan in disability circles. See it and judge for yourself.

“Rita is much, much neater.” Eight months away, coupled with the sad fact that non-crip theatre still views us as outsiders, even within a story that was written to illustrate what happens when a man ruled by his head creates a man ruled by his heart and leaves him to survive in a world that shuns him. At least that’s how I’ve always interpreted the story.

Spasticus and his band of Merry Pranksters (Thanks, Mr. Kesey) are purpose-driven – for Rita and for the audience. Ultimately, Rita’s task and the audience’s are one and the same: When you leave this place go out singing, go out thinking, go out feeling, go out – not simply knowing – but believing you’re beautiful. See it and judge for yourself.

This article appeared on Disability Arts Online, February 10, 2011.  Author Christine Bruno is the Disability Advocate at the Alliance.

By: Christine Bruno, March 2011

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