15 February 2011

Frankenstein - National Theatre, Monday 14th February 2011

Dr. Victor Frankenstein spends years creating a creature out of human body parts, finally managing to bring his creation to life. Appalled by its ugliness, the creature is thrown out into the darkness of the night. After experiencing the joys of living, the creature is taunted and attacked by frightened villagers. It finds its way to the cabin of an old blind man, who takes pity on it and, unable to see its ugliness, teaches it to speak and read. It is attacked by his frightened family who drive it away – it returns and burns down the cabin in revenge, killing them.

After a year of wandering, the creature finds its way back to Geneva, home of Frankenstein, where the doctor is preparing to marry Elizabeth. The creature abducts and kills William, Frankenstein’s much younger brother. Frankenstein tracks the creature to the mountains, where the creature begs him for a mate. Appalled, Frankenstein however manages to find the idea stimulating and agrees, journeying to Scotland, where he creates a female creature from dead bodies. The creature is entranced, but Frankenstein is struck by doubts concerning the morality of what he has done and destroys his second creation. The creature vows revenge.

Frankenstein returns to Geneva and marries Elizabeth, who is cornered in her room by the creature and raped before being brutally killed. Frankenstein swears to devote the rest of his life to destroying his creation and begins his quest to track the creature down, eventually locating it among the polar ice. The creature tells him that it will end its existence only if Frankenstein dies first. They disappear into a snowstorm, never to return.
Victor Frankenstein - Benedict Cumberbatch
William Frankenstein - Haydon Downing
Klaus - Steven Elliott
M. Frankenstein - George Harris
Elizabeth Lavenza - Naomie Harris
De Lacey- Karl Johnson
Felix - Daniel Millar
The Creature - Jonny Lee Miller
Female Creature - Andreea Padurariu
Gretel/Clarice - Ella Smith
Ewan - John Stahl
Agatha - Lizzie Winkler

Creative Team:
Original Story – Mary Shelley
Adaptation – Nick Dear
Director - Danny Boyle
Designer - Mark Tildesley
Costume DesignerSuttirat - Anne Larlarb
Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet
Director of Movement - Toby Sedgwick
Fight Directorn - Kate Waters
Music and Soundscore – Underworld

Ah, Valentine’s Day. A time for roses, chocolates, intimate dinners a deux – apparently. Or indeed more gothic horror. I’ve recently reviewed Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde, there’s been a noteworthy production of The Invisible Man at the Chocolate Factory, Being Human is back on TV (mmmm, sexy werewolves……) and now its time for the big flat-headed creature with the bolts through its neck (Run, children! Its George Osborne!). Next week will probably see a trip to see Carry On Screaming at this rate. Mary Shelley’s little gothic number is obviously an A Level set text this year, because the place was teeming with the spawn of the devil – sorry, students. Fortunately most of them were quite well behaved for a change.

I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect from this, but sure as hell didn’t get it. I did have visions of mad scientists cackling away in laboratories during thunderstorms while hordes of villagers waved pitchforks at the castle gates but this production is very well mannered, extremely visual, more or less true to the original Shelley novel and just that bit too humorous to be properly scary. In fact, I foresee that some of the unintentionally funny lines may well be cut before opening night in a couple of weeks time; the production would be better for it. What really needs to be cut is the actor who plays Frankenstein’s father; George Harris has absolutely no visible acting talent whatsoever and who is a disgrace to his profession. Should there ever be a play in which one of the characters is a wooden plank, then this guy will be up for a BAFTA.

There are holes in the plot that you could drive a truck through, unfortunately – having spent years creating his “creature”, Dr. Frankenstein throws it out into the night (a dark and stormy one, obviously) for no better reason than because it is “ugly”. Obviously Frankenstein has a very under-developed sense of aesthetics as Jonny Lee Miller makes a very pretty creature indeed – all biceps, jawline and truly calipygean buttocks. What is the point of the enormous train, other than to make a lot of noise and a bit of theatrical spectacle? Where are the blind man’s daughter and her husband during the year it takes the creature to learn to speak? Having abducted the Doctor’s younger brother, the “creature” then kills the child for no apparent reason (or maybe the child simply dies; this point is never really explained) and then sends the body back in a boat which somehow manages to sail in the opposite direction to the current. Does Frankenstein later manage to reanimate this particular corpse, or is he merely having a conversation with the child’s ghost? Having agreed to provide the creature with a female companion, Frankenstein then suddenly develops a sense of morals and destroys her, much to the creature’s consternation as it plans to run off with its bride and live in the forests of South America of all places. Say wa? How does it intend to get there from Geneva, we ask? And how does the creature manage to live in the frozen wastes of the Arctic? Has it got antifreeze instead of blood? What does it eat? Fortunately these points go unnoticed while you are actually watching the play, which certainly pulls out all the theatrical stops in terms of visuals – but I’m sure many of the audience will need to be taking a cork along with them because, once again, there is no interval. What is it at the moment with no-interval plays?

Many of the early scenes are played with wonderful simplicity – in the wrong hands, these could have been mawkish, but they are handled with a great lightness of touch. Later scenes get more portentous and overdo the “Hammer Horror” touch a bit, particularly those set in the Scottish Highlands, where there is a touch too much lightning and gothic gloom, leavened with an over-heavy hand with forelock-tugging “comedy villagers” with Brigadoon accents and an unexplained abundance of useful cadavers for the Doctor to use as spares. Probably the best thing in purely visual terms is the device used to simulate lightning – hundreds of lightbulbs of different sizes glittering in waves. Late in the play, these are spotlight from the sides with blue light, and the whole thing becomes an enormous, coldly glittering iceberg which I could have sat and watched all night.

The true challenge of this play is that the lead roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his “creature” are being alternated by Cumberbatch and Miller – it would be very interesting to see how the play changes when the roles are swapped. Is this truly an experiment in theatre or just a cynical marketing ploy devised by the National to get the audience to come back twice? Whatever the reason, I imagine that it’s quite a frightening experience for both to hear “their” words being spoken back at them by someone wearing “their” costume. I think, on reflection, that we saw the right performance – Cumberbatch makes a very refined and credible Frankenstein but I can’t really imagine him stripped down and parading his todger to the audience as the “creature”. Miller made a sympathetic “creature” and really rather lumbers away with the show, but needs to tone down his “Yesh, marshter” vocals a bit as I kept getting mental imagesh of Louish Spensch from the Pineapple Dansh Schudiosch.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It managed to both overcome my expectations and at the same time exceed them. Some of the comedy needs to be cut, and the schlock-horror Gothicism needs lightening (as opposed to lightning). Cumberbatch sports a truly frightening wig, but what is truly frightening about this play is how badly the human race comes off in terms of morality. We lie, cheat, steal and hate, and it takes a so-called “creature” to show us our faults. For most of the evening, the production refuses to pander to the Frankenstein stereotypes and there’s not a bolt through the neck in sight. There are, however, some very muscular buttocks. I left the theatre musing gently as to where one might procure such a pair for oneself.

What the critics said:

(this was a preview performance, pro reviews will be posted after opening night.  Tickets are like hot cakes, however, and have recently been spotted selling on Ebay for upwards of £150 a pair.  Get in quick!)

03 February 2011

Twelfth Night - National Theatre, Saturday 29th January 2011


Viola has been shipwrecked in a violent storm off the coast of Illyria; in the process she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. She disguises herself as a boy and assumes the name Cesario for protection. Thus disguised, Viola becomes a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. It seems that Orsino is having little luck courting Olivia, who is in mourning for the death of her brother. As Orsino's proxy, Viola is sent to Olivia with love letters. Viola refuses to budge until she is let in to see Olivia; Olivia, intrigued by the impudent young "boy," contrives to get "Cesario" to return by sending her steward, Malvolio, after her with one of Olivia's rings. Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen for her Cesario rather than Duke Orsino—further complicated by the fact that Viola has had stirrings herself for Orsino.
Sebastian (Viola's twin, presumed dead) comes ashore in Illyria thinking that Viola has drowned in the shipwreck. A man named Antonio rescued him from the surf, and continues to aid him—at some risk to himself, as Antonio fought against the Duke at one time. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, Sir Toby Belch (her uncle) has hoodwinked a foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek into supporting him by convincing him that he could be a suitor to Olivia. There is a running feud between Malvolio , the House Steward, and Belch; with the help of Maria, Olivia's maid, and Feste, a clown, Belch plots to make a buffoon of the steward. Maria writes a love letter to Malvolio that will make him think Olivia has fallen for him. Malvolio falls entirely for the sport, which eventually leads to his confinement as a madman.
All the while, Belch is egging Sir Andrew into a duel with Viola's "Cesario" character as she departs from Olivia; Olivia is now entirely smitten with Cesario, even though Viola continues to press Orsino's cause. As Viola and Sir Andrew prepare for a duel that neither one wants, Antonio happens upon the scene. Believing Viola to be Sebastian, he intervenes and is arrested. Viola, of course, does not recognize Antonio. Later, Belch and Sir Andrew encounter Sebastian, who doesn't back down from Aguecheek when challenged and resoundingly beats him. Olivia intervenes in the matter, and - mistaking Sebastian for Viola/Cesario - presses her suit for him. A bemused Sebastian agrees to marry her. Antonio is brought before the Duke for questioning, and Viola relates the events of the duel. Antonio tells everyone how hedragged "this man" from the surf, saving his life. Then Olivia enters, searching for her new husband—who she thinks is Viola (as Cesario).
Adding to this confusion, Belch and Aguecheek enter claiming that Viola/Cesario has violently assaulted them. In the midst of Viola's denials, Sebastian appears. The brother and sister recognize one another and are reunited; Sebastian helps to clear the confusion as to who fought who and who married who. At the end, Orsino and Viola pledge their love, Olivia and Sebastian will remain satisfactorily wed, and Olivia rebukes Belch and Maria for their abuse of Malvolio, who vows his revenge upon the whole lot. Belch agrees to wed Maria to make up for getting her in trouble, and all—except the disgruntled Malvolio—will apparently live happily ever after.
Orsino – Marton Gsokas
Curio – Joseph Timms
Valentine – Richard Keightley
Viola – Rebecca Hall
Sir Toby – Simon Callow
Maria – Finty Williams
Sir Andrew – Charles Edwards
Feste – David Ryall
Olivia – Amanda Drew
Malvolio – Simon Paisley Day
Sebastian – Ben Mansfield

Creative Team
Director – Peter Hall
Designer – Anthony Ward
Lighting – Peter Mumford
Music – Mick Sands

Dear Sir Peter Hall
As it is nearly your 80th birthday, would you like to come and direct a production of Twelfth Night for us here at the National? Unfortunately, only the Cottesloe Theatre is available. However, because the Cottesloe is very small indeed, this will at least guarantee that not many tickets will need to be sold before we can put the “House Full” signs up outside.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic Director
National Theatre

Dear Mr. Hytner
Yes, I would love to. My daughter, who has appeared in many of my productions at the Theatre Royal Bath, would like to play the lead role of Viola, as this is a part she hasn’t played before and would like to add to her CV. I would also like her photograph to appear on the front cover of the programme. Please let me know if this will be possible.

There is no such thing as a small theatre, only small directors. The fact that the production has my name plastered all over it will guarantee that it will be a complete sell-out for the entirety of its run.

Yours sincerely
Sir Peter Hall

Dear Sir Peter
Yes, we are prepared to let your daughter take the lead in this production. We will “ringfence” the auditions and, regardless of the quality of the other actresses attending the audition, will cast her. We are assuming that, because she is your daughter and has appeared in many of your previous productions (albeit a long way outside London), she can actually act? We only ask as the role of Viola is very difficult and is usually played by very experienced actresses such as Vivien Leigh, Zoe Wannamaker and Judi Dench. We presume you know (having done quite a bit of directing before) that Viola spends most of the play “disguised” as a man. Will this be a problem?

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic Director

Dear Nicholas
Thank you for your kind letter. I telephoned my daughter today to let her know that you will be calling her for an audition. In order to save time, she will bring the signed contract offering her the role (which arrived yesterday in the post) with her.

As you mention my good friend Judi Dench (whom I directed recently in A Midsummer Night’s Dream down in the suburbs somewhere), I wonder if you might be able to find a part in Twelfth Night for her daughter Finty? Finty is not a terribly talented actress and has received quite a lot of bad press for having inherited neither her mother’s nor her father’s acting ability. This should not be a major problem as we will put her in the “comedy role” of Maria. Between ourselves, my daughter is not terribly talented either; despite many years of coaching and appearing in many of my productions, she cannot seem to do very much with her arms or hands and, in fact, tends to leave her arms hanging down by her sides for much of the time. This has caused some problems in the past in productions (which I directed) where she has had to pick things up from tables or shake other people by the hand. I have repeatedly advised her to try and use her arms and hands a bit, even if it is only raising them slightly and waving them about in time to the lines, but she seems unable to move them at all unless she flings her entire body around from side to side, at which point her arms flap about a bit. I will try and get round this problem in my direction by not giving her very much to do (or indeed giving anyone very much to do). We will be able to get round this problem by saying that the direction is “minimalistic”.

Unfortunately, my darling daughter has problems with acting, let alone acting the part of a woman acting as a man, so I won’t bother her with this additional problem. I’ll just ask her to do it all in her normal voice. She is very good at gurning, I remember, so when any emotion is called for, I can get her to do that.

There are a couple of other people my daughter and I know very well and I wondered if you could find parts in the play for them? The chap who played Oberon for me opposite dear darling Judi in Dream has done a lot of work for me and perhaps we could cast him as Sir Andrew? He is very good and very funny and could possibly be the best Sir Andrew people have seen in a long time. He is very tall, which helps, as this is mentioned in the script.

I am very fond of the TV series Outnumbered, and wondered if we could cast the guy who plays the grandfather as something? He is, alas, a bit of a gloomy old cove, has a face like a melted trifle, has no feeling for comedy and cannot sing for toffee. Perhaps I could cast him as Feste? You know, the clown? The one who tells jokes and sings a lot?

I also like Brian Blessed and find him very funny, particularly when he roars all his words and shakes his jowls about. Is he available?

Kind regards,
Peter Hall

Dear Peter
Of course you may cast the children of your very good friends in our production, regardless of how talented they are. We contacted Brian Blessed but he was not available – perhaps if we cast Simon Callow and ask him to do an impression of Mr. Blessed? That would be very funny – although possibly a little wearing for the audience. Let us know what you think. The guy who plays the grandfather in Outnumbered is really excited about being able to work with you and slaughter both the comedy and the songs. We will hire a 5 piece orchestra of obscure period instruments such as the mandola and the nykelharpa, spend lots of money dressing the musicians in lovely period costumes and then hide them away in a bit of the auditorium where very few people can see them, and then ask them to play really really loudly so that the old guy from Outnumbered is drowned out a bit.

Unfortunately, we are a bit short of money for the set. Have you ever directed Twelfth Night on an empty stage? You are welcome to come and have a rummage around in our stockroom for odds and ends to use (we have some lovely screens with trees on which you could use for the garden scene. They are completely wrong for the Shakespearian period, being kind of 1880s aesthetic-type things, but they were very expensive and have only been used a couple of times before. Would you be able to use these?). We do have a couple of seats which you could use, but we cannot afford a trapdoor in the floor to use in the prison scene. Please let us know what you think.

Best regards,

Hi Nick
I like the idea of asking my very good chum Simon to do an impression of Brian Blessed. Clever!

There should be no problem having nothing on the stage; in fact my daughter’s hands do tend to keep catching on bits of furniture if she is not careful so this would be a very good solution to the problem. My cleaning lady has a large collection of those awful Lilliput Lane china cottages which she has collected from adverts in Woman’s Own, and she will let me borrow them as long as we keep them safe. We can put all these up in a line on a long shelf on the back wall of the theatre and they will look like a little village in the distance. My daughter made a guy for Bonfire Night last year and we could drag that onto the stage and pretend that it is a shipwrecked sailor in my daughter’s first big scene – she can point at it and look doleful. I’ve got a lovely tablecloth with a leaf design printed on it, which we can hang over the stage and raise and lower at various points.

It’s a nuisance that you haven’t a proper dungeon, but in the shed I think there is an enormous birdcage left over from when our parrot, Humphrey, died of Bird Flu. We’ll put Malvolio in that for the dungeon scene [note to self: remove Tidi-San from the bottom and clean out the food trays]. We miss Humphrey very much; he was very good at helping my daughter learn her lines. In fact, sometimes we could barely tell the difference! How we would laugh!

All the best,

Have you anyone in mind for the thankless role of Sebastian? You know, the “twin brother” of Viola? I rather like that sexy young guy who’s played a couple of very similar parts to this one at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Of course, he doesn’t look anything like my daughter, but we can get round this by getting him to shave his beard off and wear a lank and silly wig. That’ll fool the plebs in the audience completely.

What about costumes?

Dear Pete
Costumes shouldn’t be a worry – we have some lovely ones in clashing colours. Simon Callow’s is purple, your daughter and the sexy guy from Regent’s park will be in cerise and we have a lovely acid orange frock going spare; maybe you could cast someone as Olivia who would fit into it? There are various other costumes in pale blue, and of course lots of servant’s costumes in dung brown with little caps and aprons. We’ll get both the girls playing maids to wear dung brown with little aprons so that, when your daughter has to pick out the woman playing Olivia, nobody will be able to guess which is which! (btw, we’ve got the woman playing Olivia in a really lovely black silk gown with an Elizabethan collar at this point, so she will look totally different to the two women in dung brown with little aprons. But we will give all three of them little black lacy veils to hide their faces with. Nobody will notice).

We do worry that your daughter and Judi Dench’s daughter might look a bit upstaged by the guy we’ve got to play Malvolio. He is very thin and sneery looking, and also acts extremely well. In fact, he might actually turn out to be one of the best members of the cast. Never fear – we have a really odd guy from New Zealand to play Orsino. He speaks just like Jilly Goolden did when she was going a bit over the top describing a bottle of vino collapse – you know, all fruity and pompous. In fact, he’s so OTT he will draw all the attention away from anyone on stage who is really good.

Tickets are selling really, really well and your daughter looks lovely in the photograph on the front cover of the programme. We look forward to seeing her at the auditions next week.

Break a leg!
Love and kisses
Your good chum Nick