This week I had the privilege to see Danny Boyle's new prouction of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Although the production is sold out until the end of this run (April, but I'm sure it'll be back again, and two performances are to be shown live in cinemas during March), I'd had the good fortune to score a couple of seats, two rows back snuggled into the curve of the stage, within spitting distance of the action. Which proved to be spell binding, particularly the shocking opening section. At the start, the stage is empty, save for a large, upright oval covered in what looks like parchment, or the skin of a drum. It was possible to discern a shape inside this oval, soon revealed to be the monster, as he burst through it into life, as if leaving a womb. Previous versions of Frankenstein that I've seen have shown the monster on a surgical table, animated into life by a surge of electricity. But this monster, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, emerged into his life alone, writhing and gasping as he learnt how to use his body. Our proximity to this scene made this so intimate, the actor was stark naked, with scars and blood all over his body. It made me think about how shocking it would be to be so suddenly human; the skills and physical awareness babies learn gradually, would have to be grasped all at once. Cumberbatch is astonishing, in total contrast to his fast talking portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, he showed himself to be a masterful physical actor, as first of all his monster learnt he had hands, arms and then legs, stumbling in pain as he discovered how to use his body.
The two stars of the production, Cumberbatch and Lee Miller, are taking it turns in the two lead roles, one night being the monster, the next, Victor Frankenstein. For most performances, it's possible to choose who you see playing which part, but because this was a preview, we didn't know beforehand which would be which. Over pizza prior to the show, my friend and I had agreed that we hoped that Cumberbatch would be Frankenstein, assuming that would be the role with the most dialogue. In fact, once the monster has learned to talk, he gets most of the lines, staying more faithful to Mary Shelley's novel than adaptations usually do. He certainly gets the best lines, shouting "Now I am a man!" as he takes dreadful revenge on his creator. Frankenstein is hardly present in the first scenes, which depict the monster's education into humanity. Truth be told, Lee Miller was a bit of a let down as Frankenstein, even fluffing his lines at one point, but I have read that he makes a superb job of portraying the monster.
The staging of the play is worth the entrance fee alone. It's as if Boyle, more used these days to the wider canvas of film, has to use every inch of the stage, plus the auditorium and the ceiling. Flames flare up from a grill at the front of the stage to simulate a campfire (I thought my eyebrows were in danger of singeing), the sun shines and rain falls on the astonished monster as he encounters nature for the first time. At one point, an enormous train (symbolising the achievements of science and the advent of the industrial revolution) rides onto the stage with carousing villagers hanging off it. It's on stage for all of 30 seconds and then goes off again, having added little to the overall production, but still being a lot of fun. The only point at which I regretted our closeness to the action, was when clouds of dry ice flowed across the stage, and threatened to suffocate us.
The play does have its weaker points. Some of the supporting performances were less than stellar, particularly the role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancee. The actor in this role belongs to the school of actors that express emotion only by nodding and shaking their heads vigorously, in contrast to the intense physicality of the monster. The writing of this new play by Nick Dear is strong, except for a couple of places where overly modern idiom creeps in. The soundtrack, by Underworld, didn't work for me, it sounded too recorded, like someone had just put a cd on, and didn't work with the intensity of the live action.
The story of Frankenstein really makes you think about what it is to be human, what it is to be in this world. The newnesss of it all to the monster makes you see the absurdity of life through his eyes. When the monster cries out to demand of his creator why he was brought into the world and then abandoned, it's the cry any human could make at times about their own life. It's been filmed and played in so many versions over the last few hundred years, but by taking this production back to its origins, and focusing on the monster's story, we see it still has much to say that is relevant to our age, where science can do unspeakable things, and seldom pauses to ask why it shouldn't.