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The last few Thursdays for me have been National Theatre At Home premiere nights but for Frankenstein this week I deliberately waited until the following day. One of the very first live cinema screenings I went to some years ago showed the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein and I was keen to see how it worked with the casting the other way round – hence the 24 hour wait until the second version launched.
I have to say that of the two versions, I preferred the casting this way round as it seemed to better play to the strengths of the two leads. Apart from a very brief section during the introduction they do not meet for some considerable time. The narrative itself picks up some way into the novel ditching, wisely, the lead up to the Creature’s animation. By starting at this point the production is able to begin with some extremely arresting staging as the Creature is born, learns to stand upright and begin to walk while uttering sounds which are both childlike but also blood curdling. We then follow the progress of the frightened soul as it gradually comes to terms with its own being and the world that it inhabits. The middle section of the novel, narrated in flashback, in which the Creature is educated by an old blind man thus comes relatively early in the play and serves to make more sense of the growing sophistication yet bewilderment which is experienced.
It is only when the Creature returns to track down his creator and the protagonists encounter each other that the real theatrical fireworks begin. Miller as the Creature is driven by more raw anger than I recall Cumberbatch having and, somehow, his childlike gestures are more affecting, his rejection more compelling. Meanwhile Cumberbatch is the more successful at conveying Victor’s aloof arrogance, uncompromising spirit and willingness to sacrifice everything to turn himself into a God. The performance sometimes seems like a dry run for his Sherlock but that is with the benefit of hindsight. The big encounters between the two sides of what are, essentially, the same personality provide the high points of both the physical and intellectual debate which becomes a visceral experience.
Despite solid unshowy performances I am afraid that most of the rest of the cast are neither here or there in terms of audience engagement and excitement. The ever-dependable Karl Johnson as De Lacey (the blind man) provides a sense of calm against Miller’s rage but as the character disappears from the narrative early on there can never be any change or development. Adapter Nick Dear (who in all other respects does a first class job) has tried to do more with the character of cousin Elizabeth but ultimately both he and Naomie Harris are up against the limitations imposed by the source material. Would it have been interesting, I wonder, for two actresses to have alternated the roles of Elizabeth and the female Creature?
Danny Boyle brings a cineaste’s eye to the role of director and makes the visual aspect as stunning as the text. Using some of the same team that provided the spectacle of the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Olympics he and designer Mark Tildesley emphasise the vast loneliness of the Olivier stage (and the characters) by stripping everything back and keeping changes fluid. Earth, air, fire and water are used to dominant effect. The industrial innovations of electricity and steam power are also given due prominence, the first in a low hanging chandelier of 3,500 light bulbs which repeatedly flare into blinding white light. The second is shown in a mesmerising sequence with a steam train; to be honest I wasn’t altogether sure what the latter had to do with the narrative but it provides a real theatrical “moment”.
Eschewing the cliched gothic trappings of the more traditional film adaptations, this stage version is actually much nearer to author Mary Shelley’s original concept and plays out the scenario for deep psychological insight rather than schlock horror effects. Apparently, this production is the most requested item in the National Theatre archive and it is good to see it reaching a much wider audience at home. My only (slight) grumble about the At Home programming is that One Man, Two Guvnors aside the NT has, so far, been rather over reliant on adaptations of classic novels (Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and this) or Shakespeare (Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra is up next). Perhaps it is time to branch out a bit (?)
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore
The two versions of Frankenstein are available from NT At Home until May 9th. Click here
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