Friday, March 18, 2011

Frankenstein: NT Live! @ Nottingham Broadway Cinema - Thursday 17 March 2011

Frankenstein at the National Theatre sold out VERY quickly: a hardly surprising fact taking into account the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller (both 'hot' tickets in many ways) and the direction of Danny Boyle (fresh from success in the movies, though he began in theatre).

Despite such an illustrious cast though, it feels an awkward production as a whole to critique.

The performances of the two leads are clearly incredible: VERY physical, utterly demanding, and emotionally exhausting to watch. Victor Frankenstein is given less to do - particularly in the opening 45 minutes - but when he is more present, it clearly takes a lot out of him (plus, JLM's wig probably doesn't help). For me, BC is brilliant as the creature - it's excruciating to watch him deal with bursting into life and being incapable of getting his body to move to his will. The Creature's coming into language is just as painful, but ultimately demonstrates his grace and intellect even as he suffers and inflicts suffering for the way society and his creator rejects him. Helen described her feeling today as a 'drama hangover' and she isn't wrong. It's both intoxicating and also probably not good for you: you can understand why the play runs for 2 hours straight with no interval, even as it takes all your energy to keep watching (especially in those dialogue-less first 15 minutes or so where the Creature painfully struggles into co-ordination).

The staging too is imaginative and economical at the same time: space and place blur and stretch --- a single strip of 'grass' nevertheless conveys open fields; a train visually demonstrates the thrust of industrial progress*. The Olivier stage, with its revolving drum feature being well used, moves the drama from sets such as Victor Frankenstein's Scottish retreat where he makes, and then destroys, a possible female companion for the Creature, right through to the Frankenstein family home. And Bruno Poet's lighting is beautiful: the carpet of lights that shoots down from the ceiling, surges of electricity and white light heat, is a magnificent sight and one of my few regrets for not being in the space itself.

Yet whilst there is much to praise in the production, there is something lacking. The best bits of the script are those that convey the intellectualism, the fierce social criticism, and the literary awareness of Mary Shelley's original text. The more extensive use of Milton's Paradise Lost is utterly apt, and there is definitive eloquence to Cumberbatch's Creature for sure (his voice, though stuttering, gains in stature and reflection throughout the play).

But the rest of the play text...? Oh dear Dear. Some of the lines, though amusing, perhaps stir more laughter than they should (the hapless Elizabeth, Victor's fiance and later wife, is given some particularly clunky dialogue). A memorable offender is the line "We'll have none of that" when the Creature touches her breast. Urgh. Still: the Creature's exchange with Elizabeth on her wedding night, and especially his acquisition of that quality unique to humanity, is stunning - albeit possibly helped by Cumberbatch's elegant delivery.

Overall, the production as a whole is at its best when the two leads share the stage: they clearly relate well to each other, probably reinforced by their sharing of the lead roles. The first encounter on the mountain is spectacular, though I'd also praise the ending. Paul Taylor's review for the Independent describes it best -
"He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on," declares the Creature of his frost-bitten, exhausted maker who, even now, as he is fed raw fish to sustain him in his futile quest, recoils from the proffered hand of his abhorred progeny. This existential stalemate, brilliantly realised in script and production, projects an indelible multi-layered emblem – of a scientist who can only accept responsibility for what he has engendered by impotently seeking to un-invent it and of a rejected son who understands that this last-ditch mutual dependence is a bitter travesty of the human reciprocity he had desired.
Of course, I'd have loved to have seen the reverse casting: Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Johnny Lee Miller as the Creature, if only for completion (and not at all for any shallow reasons of BC in a frock coat). But scheduling doesn't allow, and nor do the ticket sales (as in-demand as the London tickets). *sigh*

Ah well: I will await Helen's reaction to a naked Johnny Lee Miller (Cumberbatch's performance wusses out on offering full nakedness) and to a Sherlock-esque Victor Frankenstein from Cumberbatch. Am sure she will enjoy.

A digital programme for Frankenstein (£3) is available from the NT Live website.

*Why the train is necessary is another matter: it's visually spectacular but feels a bit very redundant!

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