Overview: As a part of a drive to ease The National Theatre have made available for streaming their critically acclaimed stage production of Frankenstein, from 2011. Things are pretty much as the book, but seeing this story brought to life on stage, like never before, really helps to understand why the tale is still as relevant as it was when it was written. There was much hype about this production, and reading on will show exactly why that was, and that the end-result was something that is a welcome addition to one of the great treasures of literature.
With Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) story so deeply embedded within the cultural consciousness, the job of findings a way to make your point about the points of the story is no easy task. That’s what Danny Boyle (Director) does with the stage script by Nick Dear; it’s clear he knows there’s not much point in trying to say anything new, or find a perspective that’s entirely fresh. That can’t be done, as so much has been said and written about the genius of Mary Shelley’s work, already. All of what’s known and accepted to be Science Fiction owes and always will owe a debt so tremendous that any hope of repaying it is non-existent. Perhaps that explains why the desire to pay homage is so fierce. With this in mind, it’s the job of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller to step up and depict Victor Frankenstein, the obsessed scientist, and what is simply known as “The Monster”.
What really works with this production is that the action begins at Chapter 5 of the book, where the creature is “born”. The first scenes are of what Victor Frankenstein has made experiencing its first moments. This differs from the book, but the change is welcomed. There’s a horrible, solemn grit to the idea of an adult-sized being not being able to walk, let alone talk. All of the attributes that babies have, upon leaving the womb, so too does the actor depicting The Monster (it’s at this point that it becomes crucial to identify that the for the purpose of this review, the version being discussed is that with Jonny Lee Miller as The Monster; him and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated each evening during the show’s run). This was a wonderful idea, and cuts out much of the backdrop of the book, that isn’t relevant to the character studies that this performance deals with and centres on.
As things progress the audience see The Monster “grow up”. He is taught to read and shown how to conduct himself, by De Lacey. The Monster is much more overtly child-like in this story than the book. Having already had some experiences of people findings his physical appearances shocking and labelling him hideous, The Monster is reluctant to be introduced to De Lacey’s family. When he finally agrees, all of his fears are confirmed and he is driven out. Just as he does in the book The Monster learns to hate and becomes the product of anger, shame and prejudice. From here on in things don’t differ a great deal to the book, though the ending does. No need to spoil it. Watch and find out what happens, you won’t be sorry that you did. A wonderful telling of one of the classics. The heavy focus on theme helps to make it at truly memorable watch, and a deeply engaging experience. Another great thing about this version is that the question of Victor’s true craving to create a being in the vane of a male is explored in more detail, stitching in ideas of his repressed sexuality, perhaps more latent in the original tale. It’s an important contribution.
Miller excels in the role of The Monster. That has to said, first. It’s one thing to make a film and have the luxury of retakes and editing to get a character right, but another thing entirely to have nothing but you and a live-audience in a room. Theatre tickets aren’t cheap, and people have expectations. All of their hopes to see something novel and innovative must have been well and truly smashed. Watching this on screen can’t possibly begin to capture what must have been an exhilarating experience for the crowd. Even seeing him years later, via streaming, the electricity in his performance is tangible. He captures what it is to be born and portrays a blank canvas with incredible skill. The physical talent needed to do this are tremendous. Having also watched Cumberbatch offer his version, it must be said that Miller wins, hands down (yes, this review is focusing on the version mentioned, but this needed to be said). Seeing him play The Monster is riveting, and he sublimely succeeds in creating a deep bond with the audience. He makes is look easy and that is telling.
The role of Victor Frankenstein comes with pressure, too. Cumberbatch taps into the very bones of man in the role of God. The thirst to win, and to be right, at all costs, are portrayed with desire and fierceness. The self-centredness of the character is thoroughly understood by Cumberbatch, and he presents someone who is so deeply in the throes of obsession that he understandably exists in denial. When he confronts The Monster, Cumberbatch makes Victor brilliantly and consciously confront everything about himself that he has come to hate. What’s needed in this role is absolute conviction of delivery. That’s not simple, when you consider that the character that he plays begins to doubt himself. Cumberbatch nails that, delicately showing the fragility that exists beneath the steely exterior of Victor Frankenstein.
The supporting cast are very much that, in this show. Nevertheless, they do an important job, even if they mostly act as foils that allow the main stars to shine. Naomi Harris helps to reveal the extent of the lie that Victor is living (perhaps in more ways than one, as he complains of him rarely having any physical desire for her), and also helps to show the kinder side of humanity, by attempting to soothe The Monster. Others that play their part in adding to the spectacle are Karl Johnson’s De Lacey, original mentor to The Monster who gives him a role model and an entry point for morality. De Lacey’s family Felix and Agatha ( Daniel Millar and Lizzie Winkler) help to show that ignorance can cause damage, whilst Victor’s family members (Jared Richard plays William, Victor’s young brother and George Harris plays Victor’s father) show how helpless anyone is when a person is determined to pursue things that will likely bring about their downfall.
Stagecraft & Choreography
The National Theatre knows how to put on a show. The choreography is renowned, the world over. They don’t disappoint here. The chamber that The Monster is birthed from looks mystical and ethereal. The strange orange glow it gives off help to make it an idea of the sun, too. This is a deeply poetic concept, that those in charge of things must surely have been aware of. It’s too well-designed to be an accident. It’s this that helps to show things as being very much engrained in the Prometheus myth, that the book is (its subtitle is Or, The Modern Prometheus). Everything is so well done that it looks like a film at times, and as a result the suspension of disbelief is held throughout, never once threatening to come loose. There is evidence in abundance that those who are making the magic happen haven’t merely relied on their knowledge of the story from likely reading it years before; they’ve gone back and studied the small details and from what they’ve rediscovered they’ve made a Gothic space on stage, one replete with a foreboding and compelling atmosphere.
The crew responsible for the effects and the make-up artists also need to be given much credit. They help to devise the feel of the show, which is one of darkness and the descent into it. This relies heavily on the lighting and other technical knowhow, that so often gets side-lined due to all the praise going to the actors. It’s crucial to remember that the show couldn’t happen without them, and they are a massive part of why the show gets received so well. This show’s success belongs to them, too. They present the visual elements of the world in which the characters inhabit, and their ingenuity allows that to add to the experience. They help make the whole thing remarkable.
Incidental Music & Overall
There’s no doubt about it, Frankenstein is one of the best stories ever told. It’s so deeply connected to the human condition that it can apply to so much. Perhaps it’s more relevant than ever, with humanity being in an age of unprecedented knowledge of science and computers. Knowledge is very much the operative word. This version knows that, and the music it uses to make the drama all the more tense, and the stage environment all the terser is a fine marriage of action and sound. The combination of diegetic and non-diegetic music provided a brilliant sense of the inner and the outer, the felt and the actual. Timing action and emotion via music is key, and those who have the job of judging that need an eye for the moment that can’t fail. Fortunately, that’s the case, and what ensues is seamless.
Sometimes lightning can be caught and bottled. Not often, especially when the material being rendered is so well known. This production is one of those rare examples of magic. The acting is inspired, the story clipped where it needed to be, so that it fits the needs of a stage show. Visually and audio-wise the work is near-perfect. So much went into this show, and and seeing that on the screen just goes to show how much we miss live-performances and how vital they are to our culture. That this can come across, even though the play was performed almost ten years ago and what’s being seen lacks the presence that live shows bring, only goes further in making the case that we are deeply privileged to have it. Watch, enjoy, and if you’re able to then show the appreciation by donating to The National Theatre, who made this all possible, as well as available to view remotely and for free, too! It’s crucial to remember, when things start to re-open and life again resumes at the transient speed of commerce, that it’s all too tempting to forget to take moment away from everything and realise the value of something as good as this. Take the chance, whilst you still can. You’ll realise that once you’re able to, there’s nothing quite like the enchantment and spell-binding wonder of live theatre.
- Incidental Music & Overall9.8