A couple of years ago I pined to see Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. It didn’t happen, alas, but I was fortunate enough to see the live recording at the cinema.
Few things in life meet your expectations, especially when those expectations are incredibly high. I’ve seldom anticipated anything more than this production: the reviews, the tweets, the interviews all led me to expect something extraordinary.
I was wrong.
It was better.
Since I could only manage to see one version, I opted for the one in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the Creation and Jonny Lee Miller plays Dr Victor Frankenstein. (Note: it is a disservice to call the being created by the doctor a monster or a creature. Monstrous he may be in form, but it takes human cruelty to make his heart so. I will use the term Creation which, in my opinion, fits the bill better and is more appropriate to Mr Cumberbatch’s performance.)
The two lead actors alternated parts for every performance. In artistic terms, this allowed both men to fully explore the nature of the relationship between creator and created. Also, in pragmatic terms it offered what must have been a very welcome respite to the actor playing the Creation. I have never seen a more physically demanding part. I cannot imagine anyone, even the redoubtable Mr Cumberbatch, managing to embody that creation eight shows a week without serious damage to his health.
Before the play began there was first a brief behind-the-scenes documentary. It was, alas, much too brief and served only as a teaser in the proper sense of that word.
Doyle, Cumberbatch and Miller each discussed their approach to the play. There was some discussion of their artistic intent, but much too brief. I would have liked more. Much more.
I would have liked a fairly lengthy interview with Nick Dear who adapted the play from Mary Shelley’s novel. There were problems with the script, I’m not going to lie, but it succeeded far more than it failed. I’ll discuss the script and its difficulties in more detail shortly.
I’d also like to have seen the set and lighting designers talk about their exceptional work. I’d have liked the choreographer, the makeup artist and the costume designer be allowed to contribute to the discussion because their contribution to this extraordinary work cannot be overstated.
But there is, apparently, a ‘making-of’ documentary due to be aired on British television some time this year. I hope it does justice to all the contributors and not only the two main stars and the director, exceptional though they are.
As to the play itself: I could simply say ‘extraordinary’ and leave it there, and it was. Extraordinary. But not perfect. What is?
The play opens with a rumble of music and flashing lights. The ceiling above the stage is full of naked light bulbs all hanging at different heights, all in different shapes. These lights are used for any number of purposes: lightening, a night sky, a white glow of terrifying brilliance.
On the stage is an oval sac which is lit and reveals a hand pressed against the inner membrane. It reminded me of photographs of in-utero foetuses which was, I’m sure, the point.
From this sac emerged the Creation. He fell flat on the ground and for the next several minutes tried to coordinate his limbs. His body spasmed, he flailed. For some part of the time he crawled on the stage using his knuckles. This entire sequence was conducted without speech and functioned as much as a ballet as a scene in a play. I did wonder how much of the action was directed by Boyle and how much, if any, was choreographed.
The grace and power of Cumberbatch’s performance here, the raw physicality and the pathos of the sad Creation’s attempts to gain mastery of his limbs was beyond all superlatives. That he performed this scene naked on stage is even more extraordinary (for the purpose of the filmed version he wore a skin coloured loincloth).
Frankenstein (Miller) then appears and is aghast at what he has wrought. That reaction didn’t really work for me: didn’t he know what his Creation looked like when he was making it? That’s not a flaw with the acting but with the writing, though, to be fair, it fits with Mary Shelley’s novel. She wrote that Victor felt evil emanating from the thing he has made and so fled from it.
In Boyle’s production, however, it is clear that the Creation is, like Man, born with a capacity for either good or evil. The rejection by his ‘father’ and the lack of a mother mean the poor sad being must fend for himself.
A train rumbles into the middle of the stage and the light shifts to something dark and mechanical as the Industrial Age appears in all its terrifying majesty. And with all its inherent cruelty too as the people scream at the sight of the Creation, beat him, and abuse him.
This scene is very well done and much of its power is due to the skill of the set designer and the composer. The music here is intensely atmospheric and imbues the whole with chilling power. That said, the scene cannot avoid being a bit heavy-handed, but then, Frankenstein is a gothic tale and those are not known for their subtlety.
Without belabouring individual passages I will say that the writing is rather uneven. Some scenes work very well, none more than the one-on-one between Victor Frankenstein and his Creation in which the latter tries to persuade his Creator to make a bride for him. He will not use brute force but logic, he says. He quotes Milton. He debates philosophical questions such as a man’s responsibility to that which he has made. Like Caliban he attributes his current malignity to the suffering he has endured: ‘Slowly I learned the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learned the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns. I finally learned how to lie.’
Although the language is sometimes stilted it only becomes apparently so in retrospect: both actors are too accomplished in their craft to allow it to be evident at the time.
Another problem with the script is that the humour seems grafted on rather than organic. I got the feeling the play was written, perhaps work-shopped, when someone noticed it was unrelentingly grim. Then some bright spark said, ‘I know, let’s put in some funny bits!’ This only works if said funny bits are, you know, funny. Mostly they were too contrived to be of much worth. Maybe it’s just me, though. I noticed people laughed at the National Theatre and in the cinema.
While Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch – especially the latter – turned in towering performances, some of the rest of the cast were less remarkable. Even the better of them, such as George Harris as M. Frankenstein, were hollow at best. I suspect this may be because the director put all his attention on the lead roles and really wasn’t too worried about the ensemble. Not that anyone was particularly bad, but if you appear on stage with a Colossus like Cumberbatch you’d better be prepared to play your best game. And not everyone did.
Jonny Lee Miller did bring his best game. I have always found him to be a somewhat forgettable actor. I don’t mean that he’s bad – he really isn’t – but he lacks the sparkle of a Branagh, for instance, or a Tennant. But he turned in a very credible performance as the doctor. All right, I didn’t see much in the way of character development, but that is very likely due to the writing. And I never forgot for even a moment that I was watching Jonny Lee Miller. He never succeeded in immersing himself in the part to that degree. On the other hand, I did enjoy his performance and when I say he never seemed outmatched by Mr Cumberbatch I am giving high praise indeed.
Which brings me to said Mr Cumberbatch.
This man is that rare thing: an actor possessed of such chameleon ability that you can see him turn in a half-dozen different performances and not realise you’re seeing the same man. I loved him in Hawking, in The Last Enemy, in Starter for Ten and in Sherlock and it wasn’t until after I’d finished watching the third episode of the latter that I realised how many times I’d seen and admired this man before.
Where Miller played Frankenstein, Cumberbatch BECAME the Creation. Every twitch of his muscles, every nuanced expression, every grunt or oration from his exquisite voice belonged to the nameless being stitched together by a very flawed man.
His performance moved me to exquisite sympathy in the beginning, to utter revulsion by the end. Throughout the entire performance he was the musician and we, the audience, were his instrument. Not for one moment did I remember I was watching Benedict Cumberbatch; there was no wry Sherlock wit nor gentle Hawking courage. This was Mary Shelley’s creation brought to astounding life.
I hope the National Theatre will change their mind and release this play on DVD. This is a production not merely to be watched, but to be studied by anyone who has a passion for theatre and an appreciation for talent of the highest quality.
Don’t miss it.