It’s Tuesday night and I’ve just got back from a preview showing of Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and directed by Danny Boyle, at The National Theatre. (Cumberbatch and Miller are alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature.)
It features a few well known faces from the silver screen including Naomi Harris (whose performance in 28 Days Later and Poppy Shakespeare was fantastic) and George Harris (probably best known now for ‘Kingsley Shacklebolt’ in the Harry Potter saga).
If you are lucky enough to be sitting in the middle of the stalls, you will get a chance to toll the bell as you walk through the auditorium, however I first clapped eyes on the strange skin-like womb revolving onstage which reminded me of the TV in Kronenberg’s Videodrome.
I won’t deny that the first few minutes were uncomfortable to watch. (I am apparently thoroughly British and the thought of watching a naked man convulsing in agony on the stage unnerves me somewhat but I persevered. And boy, was I rewarded.) What followed was a beautiful portrayal of how Creature learns to walk, using his muscles for the first time (think Bambi – in a good way) which made his inevitable exclusion all the more saddening. Throughout, the actor held the deformities of a reconstructed body and beautifully twitched – Creature for me was by far the best thing in this production.
There were a few hiccups, namely in the blue cap of little William Frankenstein which caused many a titter when, after falling to the floor, it’s doppelganger reappeared moments later. The lighting not as fluid as you would expect from a production here as well as Miller’s disturbingly strained voice so early on in a run. (I hope that it is being looked after as I don’t know how long it will last at this rate.) But the design of the lightening strip, hanging from the ceiling, was inspired as it buzzed eerily with its stunning variety of electric lights throughout.
We could be generous and suggest that, as we were only four nights in, these are all cracks that can be tweaked for the World Premier on Thursday 24th February. But, considering it’s already sold out and the calibre of Cast & Creatives involved, is that right? I have seen productions on a considerably smaller budget run smoother than that.
As we know, this is not a happy story. And as we grow to care for Creature, finding his own way in the world, we watch him – reviled and beaten – by those he meets. It is the dichotomy that the more educated he becomes, the more frustrated he finds himself. From the books that De Lacey (played well by Karl Johnson) lovingly teaches him to read, he learns of the human capacity for revenge and hatred. And when his trust in De Lacey is broken, you know this can only end badly.
From there Creature makes his way to Geneva to seek Frankenstein, finds out that he is engaged and implores him to the female creature that he might take away to South America and love. A bargain is made and Frankenstein leaves his fiancée Elizabeth again. The phrase ‘the world is turning’ is repeated by both Elizabeth and Creature in quick succession and you feel for them as they are left behind in the wake of Frankenstein’s genius. They are both urging to be a part of a society that chooses to exclude them because of who they are.
You know you’re watching a selfish prick when he has to ask the creature he’s created and repulsed by ‘what love is?’. Desperate times calls for desperate measures, so in Frankenstein’s destruction of that which Creature loves is where Miller’s portrayal makes most sense. Two happy thumbs up for the physicality of Andreea Padurariu who played Female Creature. A dancer (ballet?) by nature she holds herseslf perfectly on stage – not a shake nor a quiver in her fluid movements. In the performance I saw, Cumberbatch was the Creature and Miller Frankenstein. Though I would like to see it again with the actors in their other roles, I was glad that I saw them in these roles. Cumberbatch is as electric on stage as he is on screen. Cumberbatch’s skill is deftly applied in everything I have seen him in so far and I can’t wait to see more from this exciting actor in future. Though it would have be great to see him break loose a bit more – we never see the full extent of Creature’s rage – I’m sure there is a reason for Boyle’s choice. Naomi Harris did well with the part she was given as Elizabeth, a stunted 19th Century women. You almost want to pick her up and shake her at times but this indeed was at times a stilted 19th Century production. With some restrained emotional responses from cast members (that sometimes garnered inappropriate laughter), I wonder whether this restrained production was the best choice to make, or whether these actors are still finding their way. After all the jump from screen to stage is a big one, and the subtleties required for screen acting are lost on the domineering Olivier stage.
In the unfair treatment of Creature, Cumberbatch’s performances offers you real license to feel for him. Lost and alone, he just wants someone to love and keep him company. Creature is not alone in that: to be isolated and unwanted would crush the strongest of spirits and so the image that we are left with is all the more sweet: absolutely breath-taking.
However I wonder if Boyle’s forgotten his roots in theatre, and the Royal Court as this production is more filmic than theatric. It seems to value the importance of soundtrack and subtle acting over believable theatrical acting and detail but overall, this was great to watch and perhaps with time, the production will settle and it will be magnificent.
Frankenstein is now SOLD OUT for all dates in the current booking period up to 17 April except for Day Seats and the possibility of customer returns.
Frankenstein will continue into May and continuing performances will go on sale in early March. Click on the following link for more information on National Theatre Membership and links to sign up for early booking.