Frankenstein at the National Theatre

I’ve been a huge admirer of ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’ since I first read mary Shelley’s magnificent book at sixth form college.  All the adaptations I have seen have suffered by comparison to the original text in both weight and emotional depth.  However remarkable the make-up and performance they all fail to capture for me the essence of the book.  When I started to hear the buzz about Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production however, I started to have hopes that this would be something special.  I wasn’t wrong.

Big shows like this can be a little exclusive.  If you live in London or the surrounding environs (and you have the cash to splash) then sure, you can see all sorts of things at the West End, but for everybody else it’s the sort of trip you’ll make two or three times a decade – for some special treat or anniversary.  The National Theatre have started to challenge this by transmitting live performances to selected cinemas around the country.  It is through this wonderfully open policy that I was able to watch Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller absolutely nail Frankenstein in their performance of the play – at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

The story remains essentially intact, but rather intruigingly cuts out Victor Frankenstein’s introductory narrative.  It all begins then, with the creature’s ‘birth’ and follows his story on from there as he is first rejected by his creator, then by the world at large, greeted with contempt and terror from all he meets, until a blind old man takes pity and begins to educate him in speech, literature, nature and history.  A horrible tragedy follows and the creature leaves, determined to find and confront Frankenstein for the injustice and torment he feels he has suffered.  Demanding a mate to accompany him and give him solace in his exile from the world of man he is granted hope by his creator, only to be betrayed once again.  Revenge is met by revenge and the slave becomes the master as they hunt each other to the uttermost end of the world.

The stagecraft is simple but very cleverly managed; the sets acting as a sketched framework for the action without ever distracting from the performers.  The script is concise, drawing from Shelley’s text where appropriate (which is particularly effective and affecting in the mouth of a Creature so often robbed of articulacy in filmed adaptations) but the writer is not afraid to make alterations in service of the medium and the drama the director has chosen to focus on.

And so, on to the actors…

I have only previously seen Jonny Lee Miller in Trainspotting, so I had no idea what to expect.  He was absolutely magnetic.  Let me describe the opening scene for you.  Frankenstein himself is absent.  All that is on stage is a man-made womb containing a shadowy figure.  Tearing through the membrane a stiched together man-creature falls to the floor and begins twitching.  Over the course of the next two or three minutes we witness an astonishing piece of physical acting.  Gradually he begins to gain muscular control, discover his limbs and then, with a hoarse shout of wordless triumph, propel himself around the stage on his arms.  He progresses to crawling (racing!) and, with great strain he manages to stand on his own two feet.  Stamping, a staggering circle, finally an awkward few steps forward and then, exhausted, he collapses to the floor once more.

It is the progress of infant to toddler in mere minutes and it immediately puts this hideous Creature into the hearts of the audience as an innocent.  It is not long before we see him revelling in the sensations of the open countryside.  His responses to the feel of grass and the sound of birdsong are particularly touching.  Later, once educated and growing up, he gives voice to the Creature in flat damaged  tones.  Plays him almost as autistic.  This being learns with incredible speed, yet comprehends the heart and mind of Man imperfectly.  Society is alien to him and the ‘inconsistencies’ of people acting within its strictures infuriate him.

That the actor could portray this character (who later murders a child, who rapes and murders Elizabeth Frankenstein on her bridal bed) in such a way as to maintain that sympathy almost to the bitter end is a feat very few could manage.

I fear I must give short shrift to Benedict Cumberbatch, simply because the play gives short shrift to the character of Frankenstein – and that was the role he was playing when I saw it.  Although alluded to in snippets of dialogue, Victor’s thoughts and motivations are sidelined in favour of the drama of the creation unleashed.  He is a fine and accomplished actor, as his turn in the recent Sherlock adaptation proved to me, but he is given little meat to chew on in the role of the original mad-scientist.

However, his subtlety of expression is a wonder to behold.  Capturing both the guilty terror and the supreme arrogance of Victor, we see him almost simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the Creature.  He marvels at his own brilliance, nostrils aflare and eyes aglow one second, then flickers of loathing (and self-loathing) crawl across his face the next.  Every twitchy movement speaks eloquently of the conflicts within, but critically he is not given the opportunity to tell his own story to the same degree that Shelley gives him in the novel.  Robbed of his perspective he is reduced to an impotent shell, sweating and fretting in self-rightious indignation but lacking the element that enables us to empathise with him.  He is emotionally dead, as unable to take part in vital human society as the Creature he has birthed.

One remarkable factor that should be noted is that the lead actors alternate their parts each night.  The show I saw had Jonny Lee Miller playing the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Frankenstein.  The person I saw the play with had previously watched them in the other roles, stating afterwards that she just couldn’t pick one out as the better in either part.  I only wish I had the chance to see the other side of the coin myself.

There are some oddities to the production.  Occasional moments of humour that feel out of place, casting choices which distract, though they make a kind of dramatic sense when pondered upon afterwards, and a surreal almost-song-and-dance-routine near the beginning which threatens the tone of the piece before it’s properly got going.  None of these spoil what is an outstanding piece of theatre to any great degree, but for the purposes of the review they combine to chip a point from my final verdict.

Before we get to that, there’s a part of me wondering quite why I’m writing this review.  Unlike films or television, the performance of actors in a theatre is by nature an impermanent thing.  Each night is subtly different and, with few exceptions, the play is not recorded for posterity.  To the best of my knowledge these live transmissions are not then available to purchase on dvd, presumably to preserve the communal nature of the theatre experience (curse them) and time is ticking by.  Of the people who visit this site how many are going to go to see the play?  How many can catch it at a cinema when most of them seem to have already had their showings?  I don’t know, but I was so enthralled by the experience, so wrapped up in the production that I just felt I had to tell you all in the hopes that at least one extra person gets to see it who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have.  I’ve checked the National Theatre website and performances will continue there all through April.  Although advanced tickets are sold out for the entire rest of the run, day tickets are available and some cinemas still have live transmissions due to air.

If there’s any way you can get to see this, just go.  Do it.  Make up an anniversary if you have to.  Just watch it.

4/5

GSReviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

Creator and co-host of Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom.

Scrolls is a part of the Geek Syndicate Network.

Follow me on twitter @Dion_Scrolls for geeky banter and chat or @Scrollscast for purely podcast related stuff.

By the way, this is the second theatrical review I find myself writing in a short time.  It makes me wonder how many more of these events we are missing out on.  If you have seen (or written, or are involved in) a play that fits in with the whole Geek Syndicate vibe then please let us know and we’ll see what we can do about plugging or reviewing it.

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