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!)

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