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In Association with
Frankenstein NT Live! (2011)
Director: Danny Boyle

review by J.C. Hartley

A long time in production after its announcement a couple of years ago, one can only assume that Danny Boyle's Frankenstein for the National Theatre was delayed through the heavy work commitments of director and stars. Boyle has made 127 Hours to acclaim, Benedict Cumberbatch has seemingly come out of nowhere with the Sherlock TV series to seize high profile roles in Spielberg's War Horse, and Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Jonny Lee Miller's somewhat quieter career has featured the Dexter TV series in the US.

The NT Live! initiative allows for the broadcast of National Theatre productions in selected cinemas around the country and abroad, to give those geographically or economically challenged the opportunity to see them. This is undoubtedly a good thing, for the National Theatre, for theatre-goers, and for cinemas. Where the experience differs from a night at the theatre is that the broadcast production makes use of the advantages of film, allowing for close-ups and angles unavailable to viewers in the Olivier auditorium.

In this adaptation by Nick Dear, director Boyle has the leading actors alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creature. Obviously this allows for both actors to feed off the nuances in each other's performance and incorporate them in their own interpretation. It also highlights the strong theme of 'doubling' implicit in Mary Shelley's original work, and as a theme in gothic fiction generally. The performances of Frankenstein for NT Live! were broadcast on the 17th and 24th of March 2011. The version I saw at The Duke's Theatre, Lancaster, on the 17th, featured Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Victor.

In interviews, Boyle has stressed the importance of the industrial revolution and particularly electricity to the story and the set features a massive chandelier of individual lights suspended over the stage. The opening scene features the birth of the creature from a spherical 'womb' of fabric, and his prolonged and indeed painful attempts to walk. While this may have been a captivating and disturbing event in the theatre with its uncomfortable intimacy, it seemed overlong and at times farcical bringing forth not a few titters from the audience. Frankenstein appears and immediately rejects his creation and from then on the stage is given over to the creature and his painful learning process.

The creature comes upon the home of De Lacey (Karl Johnson) a blind man living with his son and daughter-in-law. De Lacey teaches the creature to speak and to read while the young people are out working in the fields. The texts De Lacey uses are crucial in Mary Shelley's book in that they show the creature humanity in all its often unflattering colours. The creature identifies with Milton's Satan from Paradise Lost. Inevitably, when the creature is discovered by De Lacey's son and his wife they reject him as a monster, and in revenge he burns their home with them in it. The creature murders Victor's young brother William and, in a confrontation with his creator, demands that Victor create a companion for him. Victor travels to Orkney, assembles body parts collected by a pair of comedy locals but, fearful that the creature and his mate will spawn a new race, bloodily destroys his latest work. The creature vows that he will be with Victor on his wedding night.

Victor's father Alphonse is played by the black actor George Harris (Harry Potter series), not one presumes for any editorial reason but simply for his massive presence, and wonderful voice, representing stoicism and respectability. Unfortunately his performance is on one-note throughout and highlights the problems inherent in the minor characters. The play is so heavily weighted with the two leads, if not solely in the part of the creature himself that other parts must do what they can with what is left. Karl Johnson has more to work with as De Lacey, but comedy body-snatchers have to ham it up, and Ella Smith, as a tart and as a maid, must act with her very pretty bosom and some 'hark at me' delivery.

A similar problem affects Naomie Harris in her performance as Victor's fiancée Elizabeth. Again, presumably chosen on ability rather than some racial subtext, Naomie Harris comes with an impressive CV, not least in Boyle's 28 Days Later, as Ian Dury's girlfriend in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and in a spattering of Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. I'm sorry to harp on about the racial aspect but, after analysing post-colonial fiction, when confronted with a mixture of black and white actors in what would have been predominantly Caucasian roles, one assumes some editorial comment, rather than what is clearly the case, Boyle giving parts to the best actors he wants for the roles.

Unfortunately, again the role of Elizabeth allows for little nuance, she is simply a good person struggling to come to terms with the demented behaviour of Victor. Elizabeth's confrontation with the creature is made all the more painful in that she admires Victor's achievement, and is the only person to accept the creature as more than the monster he appears. It is particularly chilling when, having promised not to harm her, the creature informs Elizabeth that humans have taught him how to lie. It is not in the book but inevitable that the creature rapes Elizabeth in Victor's presence before snapping her neck. The play ends with Victor stalking his creation across the frozen wastes of the North Pole, the creature urging his creator on, the pair bound together until their mutual destruction.

In a play heavily weighted towards one role, Benedict Cumberbatch is astonishing in a performance that not only highlights the physicality of the part but also allows for subtlety, the creature betrays a certain preening vanity. It would be interesting to see a performance where the roles have been alternated, but on the evidence of Miller's performance as Victor, and acknowledging that the other parts are underwritten it is hard to say whether much would be added. The play has received fantastic reviews and has sold out but I cannot accept that this adaptation has added anything to the Frankenstein mythos. It has perhaps achieved a purpose in introducing audiences to the Shelley text, albeit a trimmed version with some jettisoning of characters and it is right to focus on Victor and the creature. But when the minor and peripheral characters like Elizabeth, and Victor's father, are given trite dialogue like the latter, or are almost too good to be true like the former, why not abandon them all together and be truly radical by making it a two-hander or have the leads play all the parts?

After all the hype and the anticipation I was curiously unmoved. And I do not know whether the short-comings were with the production or the presentation. Perhaps for the magic of the theatre to work you really have to be there and not just experience it live at one remove.

Frankenstein NT Live poster

Frankenstein NT Live advert

Frankenstein NT Live - Cumberbatch

Frankenstein NT Live close-up

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